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Deep Creek is no place for neon, merchants say


McHENRY -- About this time of year, vacationers begin flocking to Deep Creek Lake to escape the noise and neon of the cities.

They come to Garrett County for the great outdoors. They don't head into the mountains expecting to see golden arches along U.S. 219 as it winds along the shores of Deep Creek Lake. Nor do they expect to find the standard neon signs of tourist shops.

At least, that's what many business owners here maintain. Their trade is built around serving tourists who want to relax. And they want to keep it that way.

That's why Garrett County officials are considering so-called aesthetic regulations that would set guidelines on such things as signs, building designs and materials and color schemes.

"I can feel it in my gut that Deep Creek Lake is ready for another building expansion," said Greig Johnson, who owns the Arrowhead Market and Pizzaria Uno restaurant on Deep Creek Lake and favors the regulations. "I want to preserve our assets -- trees and mountains. Businesses should complement those assets, not distract drivers."

Mr. Johnson and others don't want to see neon signs or bright colors often associated with national franchises. They want to see earth tones, olive greens and browns, and building materials such as stone and timber that match the landscape.

"I would like to see something done for no other reason than unbridled commercial decor is not attractive," said Mike Belmonte, president of the Property Owners Association of Deep Creek Lake. The 1,200-member organization also supports such measures.

"Businesses ought to fit in with the natural ambience," he said. "Things can be done in good taste and stay within a reasonable cost. Now is the time to do something."

Others agree. The county planning commission has recommended in the Comprehensive Plan, now under review, that "aesthetic regulations" be developed for nonresidential areas in the Deep Creek Lake watershed, which encompasses about 10 percent of the county. If the Garrett commissioners agree, an ordinance will be written later.

Some think the process is too long and that county government should implement emergency or interim regulations. The county's attorney is reviewing the legality of such measures, said John E. Nelson, Garrett's director of planning and zoning.

Driving such concerns are a variety of business ventures in the works. A McDonald's franchise is eyeing U.S. 219 in Thayerville, near the lake's midpoint. Sites farther north are being cleared for small strip shopping centers. And more stores are expected to be built near Mr. Johnson's businesses.

"We're seeing some development," Mr. Nelson said. "We do need to see some controls."

Some business owners are wary about such regulation, though.

"I don't want to see overcommercialization either," said Skip Bernard, owner of the Trading Post, a trinkets, treasures and gift shop near the Deep Creek Bridge. "But we want to be careful not to create a dictatorship run by a few."

Mr. Bernard, whose family been in business in Garrett County since the 1930s, found his recent renovation of the Trading Post the focus of some criticism. The new pink and green awnings offended some.

"You know I don't have a drawing card -- I don't sell gasoline or food to get people in here," he said. "We're very kid-oriented. Kids like bright colors and openness. There are a lot of situations when such businesses can be beneficial to the area."

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