Sunday car sales approval expected Senate votes Monday, but Howard dealers hope House kills bill


A bill that would allow Sunday car sales in Howard County is expected to win state Senate approval Monday, but car dealers and others hope their strong opposition will kill the measure when it reaches the House of Delegates. Topave the way for the Monday vote, the Senate yesterday voted 43-2 against an amendment to the bill that also would have allowed Sunday car sales in Anne Arundel County.

Anne Arundel County lawmakers wanted the amendment so car dealers in their district could sell cars on Sundays and compete with dealers in Howard County if the bill becomes law.

Now that it is set for a final vote Monday, no other jurisdictions can seek to include themselves in the bill.

The Howard County delegation wants to allow Sunday sales to clear the way for CarMax, a used car "super store" and subsidiary of Circuit City stores that wants to build a 50,000-square-foot facility on 46.3 acres at the long vacant site of the former Freestate racetrack, just south of Savage.

The company is part of a revolutionary shift in auto retailing that features fixed prices, low-pressure sales techniques, huge lots with a wide variety of makes and computers and other technology that help customers to choose their cars.

But CarMax has said it would locate in Howard only if it is allowed to sell cars on Sunday. If not, it would set up either in Northern Virginia, where it could sell cars on Sundays, or in Baltimore, where it would face no Sunday sales competition.

"This is an example of how Howard County could create 250 to 500 jobs by simply changing a really outdated law . . . without state incentives," said Sen. Christopher J. McCabe, the Republican senator from Ellicott City who is sponsoring the bill. "It will allow people an extra day to make a major purchase."

But car dealers throughout the state -- including 10 of Howard's 13 new car dealerships -- oppose Sunday sales, which are allowed only in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Both the franchise and independent car dealers' associations are against the measure.

They say marginal sales increases would not offset the increased cost of opening on Sundays.

"We're not going to increase our revenues one nickel being open on Sundays," said George Doetsch, president of Apple Ford in Columbia. "But we're going to lose out on quality of life. We put in 72 hours already. That's enough."

Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, an Anne Arundel Democrat, said Sunday car sales in Howard County would have a negative impact on Anne Arundel County. But the bill has a long road before it's passed."

Mr. Jimeno voted in favor of the Anne Arundel amendment. Without such a provision, he said he will vote against Sunday sales in Howard.

Opponents also say Sunday sales in Howard would cause a "domino effect" and lead other jurisdictions throughout Maryland seek permission for their dealers.

For that reason, dealers in Anne Arundel County, represented by lobbyist Ira C. Cooke, are campaigning against the bill. Mr. Cooke, a Baltimore attorney, says it might be too late to kill the bill in the Senate, but he is confident that the House of Delegates will reject it.

"This is simply a case of economic blackmail" by a large company threatening to locate elsewhere unless it gets what it wants, Mr. Cooke said.

But Mr. McCabe and Del. John S. Morgan, a Laurel Republican, predict that the bill will pass both houses, despite what they admit will be extensive debate.

"Ira Cooke is just a lobbyist," Mr. Morgan said. "I don't believe he votes in the House of Delegates. I don't think there will be any problems."

Added Mr. McCabe: "If it gets through the Senate side, I would think that the House would respect that, despite whatever lobby efforts go on behind the scenes."

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