Day care operator told by mobile home park to close or leave

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Misty Horn has taken great pains to transform her Elkridge mobile home into a day care service for children. A sturdy jungle gym stands outside, and puzzles, games and books lie scattered on the floor inside.

Now, the four families that rely on her day care center may have to look elsewhere. The owners of Capitol Mobile Park on U.S. Route 1 say Mrs. Horn's 4-year-old enterprise violates a park rule prohibiting businesses and must close by Nov. 30, or she will face eviction.

"It's not legal in the park to have a business," said attorney Ronald Spahn, who represents park owners Steven and Barry Cohen, who have offices in Rockville. "There's absolutely no space for a child care center" in a mobile home.

But Mrs. Horn has hired a lawyer and is fighting the ultimatum, claiming that the owners and their previous park manager gave her permission to operate the service. She says that she would lose thousands of dollars if the business were closed.

"I am the main supporter in this household," said Mrs. Horn, who estimated that her business generates about $360 each week. "We live paycheck to paycheck. It would be devastating."

Mrs. Horn, a state-registered day care provider, watches five children, ranging in age from 4 months to 4 years.

Under park rules, commercial enterprises are prohibited unless a tenant receives proper written consent from the management office.

Lewis Tawney, who retired last year after 15 years as park manager hired by the Cohens, said he let Mrs. Horn open the day care center in 1990 and that park owners have given written and oral permission on several occasions since then.

"We reached a verbal agreement that it was basically a community service," said Mr. Tawney, referring to a conversation between him and Steven Cohen in 1992.

But Mr. Spahn said his clients were not aware of the enterprise. He said that businesses that bring customers into the park are prohibited, Mr. Spahn said. Park-based enterprises that are conducted off-site, such as carpet cleaning, are allowed.

Mrs. Horn said the issue came to a head this summer after two residents were denied permission to operate a dog grooming business and nail care salon.

Columbia lawyer James B. Kraft, who is representing the 30-year-old day care operator, said that under state law, day care is not considered a business when it is operated in a condominium or homeowners' association.

"We're arguing that a mobile home is . . . equivalent to a homeowners' association," Mr. Kraft said. "The bottom line is day care is a preferred use. Hopefully, we'll win this battle."

Most of Howard County's 13 mobile home parks prohibit businesses to reduce the flow of traffic and protect the privacy of residents, said Kenneth Campbell, president of the Howard County Mobile Homeowners' Association.

Howard County's largest mobile home park, Deep Run Park in Elkridge, allows unobtrusive businesses such as in-home baby-sitting or desk-top publishing. So far, General Manager Pat Regner has not received any complaints about residents baby-sitting.

"Most of it is very low-key," Ms. Regner said. "And the gals that do it must do it well because I don't hear about it."

Ms. Regner said that if a conflict arose, she would issue a written warning or talk to the resident.

At Capitol Mobile Park, the prospect that Mrs. Horn may have to shut down worries parents who rely on her services.

Louise Keller, an Elkridge resident, takes her 10-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son to Mrs. Horn's day care twice a week after school. If the day care closes, Mrs. Keller said she may have to cut her work hours.

"I'm going to possibly change my hours at work or have my husband meet the kids at the bus stop," when they return home from school, she said.

Beverly James, whose 3-year-old daughter also attends the day care, said she won't know what to do if the center closes.

"I don't have any clue," the Elkridge resident said. "I don't want to take her anywhere else."

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