Three years after pushing a strict new anti-smoking law through the Howard County Council, local activists are poised to take to the streets -- undercover -- to enforce it.
Perhaps as soon as this weekend, about two dozen members of the Smoking Coalition of Howard County plan to begin visiting restaurants around the county.
They plan to pose as customers, ordering coffee or appetizers. But where they find smoking or inadequate nonsmoking signs, they will call the police. Violators of the law face fines of up to $250 per offense.
"We're going to pay a courtesy call," said Gary Jensen, pastor at Atholton Seventh-Day Adventist Church and leader of the operation.
In the meantime, restaurant owners plan to step up their lobbying of the County Council in hopes of changing or overturning the law. And some suggest that emotions are running so high on both sides that only a lawsuit will settle the dispute.
The anti-smoking coalition plans to begin its operation by visiting the county's 220 restaurants without liquor licenses, which were supposed to ban all smoking July 1.
As it was originally understood, the law also was to place strict new rules on Howard's 39 bars. But a county lawyer discovered this spring a loophole virtually exempting bars: Because the law does not include specifications on the size of a nonsmoking area, it could be interpreted as allowing bar owners to reserve as little space as possible for nonsmokers.
The situation with the county's 90 restaurants with liquor licenses is more complicated. They must ban smoking except in sealed-off, separately ventilated bar areas -- the construction of which can cost up to $100,000, restaurant owners say.
Because of the cost and trouble involved in the renovations, County Executive Charles I. Ecker has extended a grace period to restaurants that serve liquor.
They have until the end of the year to complete renovations so long as they show progress by applying for building permits by Sept. 8.
County restaurant owners complain that the law forces them to lose business -- perhaps to restaurants in nearby counties -- or make costly renovations. Some say the law could push them out of business.
Restaurants have been slow to comply with the law, say county officials who have recently taken a harder line with restaurant owners after months of attempted conciliation.
By yesterday afternoon, not a single restaurant owner had called the county's Department of Inspections, Licenses and Permits to request information on how to comply -- despite repeated offers of help from county officials.
About 35 restaurant owners and managers sat down Friday with county officials at a meeting organized by the Maryland Restaurant Association. Both sides left frustrated.
"Many of the attendees," said Brendon Flanagan, an official with the restaurant association, "are distraught at this moment that the county is considering penalizing them immediately while failing to provide clear answers to important areas of the law."
Flanagan said the restaurant association plans to lobby vigorously for a new hearing before the County Council, but he did not rule out filing a lawsuit to contest the law.
"We're not eliminating any options right now," he said. "Everything is on the table until we talk with the council."
Some restaurant owners have met separately with Ecker and members of the County Council. But remembering the bruising debate three years ago, none of the county's elected leaders has shown enthusiasm for reopening the issue publicly.
"Nobody's interested, that I've seen, in changing it," said William A. Thies Jr., the Ecker aide charged with implementing the law. "This is too much of a hot potato."
Joel Penenburgh, owner of The Pub in Columbia's Wilde Lake Village Center, plans to take advantage of the law's loophole for bars: He will designate his 6-foot-by-6-foot foyer the nonsmoking part of his bar.
But he said the law is flawed and ripe for legal challenge. He has met privately with every member of the County Council to make his case, but with no luck.
"We, as a group, are not getting a proper audience," Penenburgh said. "I'm getting blown off."
Pub Date: 8/13/96