Fitness facility approved at center Merritt proposes 25,000-square-foot club on Route 32


The Carroll County Board of Zoning Appeals unanimously approved yesterday the construction of a 25,000-square-foot athletic club at Route 32 and Bennett Road in the Eldersburg Business Center despite the objections of a tenant.

Groundbreaking for the club -- which will include three racquetball courts, a full-sized gymnasium and outdoor pools for adults and children -- will occur in about a year, said Terry J. Dezzutti, chief operating officer for Merritt Athletic Clubs, which operates the Downtown Athletic Club in Baltimore and clubs in ** Annapolis, Towson and Woodlawn.

The Eldersburg facility will also provide aerobics, a cardiovascular center, a physical fitness center, physical therapy, child care, a hair salon and a snack bar, Dezzutti said.

The club -- endorsed by county economic director John T. Lyburn Jr. in a letter that was entered in to evidence at yesterday's three-hour hearing -- will not begin soliciting memberships until construction is under way, Dezzutti said.

The club expects to hire 50 full-time employees, most from the Eldersburg area, and participate in community activities, he said. The club's goal is to grow to about 2,000 memberships in a three- to four-year period.

Matthew L. Eder of Eldersburg, who owns a 5,700-square-foot fitness facility "a stone's throw away" from the proposed athletic club, urged the board to reject Merritt's proposal.

"Granting this today will put me out of business tomorrow," Eder told the appeals board.

When the board granted him a conditional use in 1994 to open a fitness center in the Eldersburg Business Center, he was required to show that it would not adversely affect existing businesses, Eder said.

He asked the board to impose the same restriction on Merritt, saying the company would "hold an unfair advantage over me" since it is owned by his landlord, Leroy M. Merritt, owner of the Eldersburg Business Center.

Eder described himself as a small-business man who had been a pioneer and laid the groundwork for other fitness clubs to enter the area.

"Did I expect somebody to open a health club?" Eder asked rhetorically. "Certainly. That's the nature of the beast. But I didn't dTC expect that person to be the person I'm renting from. I can't sublease to people. They can.

'Looking for justice'

"I came here today looking for justice. We're the folks doing the living and dying in this community. We're the people who started the business and sweated over it. Then somebody comes along with a little more money."

The 4-acre site where the club, swimming pools and parking lot will be built can be used "for something else" other than an athletic club, Eder told the board.

"It's like David fighting Goliath," he said. "Only there are not too many rocks in the sling."

Merritt attorney J. Brooks Leahy told the board that the two fitness facilities would serve different clienteles and that the proposed club would not adversely affect Eder's operation.

"No protestants other than competitors came to the hearing," Leahy said. Eder's "concern is misplaced. I think people who come to his place will continue to come to his place."

"But concerns about competition are not before the Board of Zoning Appeals. What is before this board are land-use issues," he said. Building an athletic club on the site "is far less intrusive that some of the other permitted uses. I think this board should clearly grant this."

Assistant County Attorney Isaac Menasche, the board's legal adviser, also said competition was not the issue.

"A private contractual matter between a tenant and a landlord is not within your jurisdiction," he told the board.

The board agreed, voting unanimously to grant Merritt's request, provided the developer provide sufficient landscaping to shield the parking lot from the view of Bennett Road residents across the street.

2,000 memberships

Merritt said 2,000 members would translate into about 400 visits a day during the 16 hours the center would operate, he said. The center would be open 5: 30 a.m. to 10: 30 p.m. weekdays and from 7 a.m to 8 p.m. weekends. Memberships would cost $50 to $75 per person per month.

The club is hoping to appeal to residents living within a 10-minute drive -- people who stop by on their way to or from work, Dezzutti said.

"The number one reason members stay members at an athletic club is convenience to work or home," he said.

By contrast, people will travel 30 minutes or more to play golf, he said.

Pub Date: 9/29/98

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