Balto. County targets group-home addition; Owners received permit for a one-story section; 2 1/2-story structure built

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Arnold Jablon can't remember the last time a business in Baltimore County was forced to tear down an illegally built addition. But Jablon, the county's chief zoning official, is threatening to force a Catonsville group home to do just that.

Jablon said the owners of Parkside Assisted Living flouted the law by building a 2 1/2-story addition when permits called for a one-story addition, and by then using the new space to house elderly residents.

"He's making money every month," Jablon said. " He's violating the law. Are we going to allow that?"

In a recent letter to the group home's lawyer, Jablon, the director of the Department of Permits and Development Management, wrote that Parkside "has purposefully, consistently and knowingly violated the law for its own economic well being."

His stern words -- accompanied with threats of daily fines -- have fueled what had been a simmering, nearly three-year clash between county officials and the group home's management over the addition.

Parkside Assisted Living officials deny that they have flouted the law, and they complain that Jablon has singled them out for punishment.

Matthew Decker, who with his wife owns Parkside Assisted Living, said the failure to obtain proper building permits was a mistake. And he said he wants to work with county officials and residents to find a way to save the group home for the elderly. "We want to do the right thing for the seniors and for the community," Decker said.

Michael Decker, who is Matthew Decker's brother and lawyer, said Jablon will not grant the home a "special hearing" to present its latest plans to comply with zoning regulations by shutting off parts of the facility.

"If they want us to remove some of the building, we will," Michael Decker said. "But we want a hearing on it." And if they don't get a hearing, he said, he might raise the issue in a federal fair-housing complaint.

In refusing to grant the hearing, Jablon noted county law prohibits processing of development plans involving a property in violation of zoning law. He is demanding that the 15-bed facility have no more than nine residents.

Matthew Decker said the group home has had as many as 15 residents, but now has nine residents.

He said some moved to other group homes, and a court order last year prohibited Parkside from accepting new residents.

Jablon said the addition might have to be "shut off" or used for storage.

But, he added, "I want him to tear it out."

About a half-dozen times a year, county officials order the demolition of a carport, garage or other such homeowner project built without permits and in violation of zoning law, Jablon said. Last year, a zoning commissioner stopped short of ordering the owners of the Mount Vista golf course in northeast Baltimore County to knock down their illegally built clubhouse.

"We do not normally get commercial entities doing things without permits," Jablon said. "That is unusual."

Initially, a zoning commissioner approved the group home's request for zoning variances for the addition. The house is on North Rolling Road with rambling Victorian houses. But neighbors, arguing that the addition made the house too large to fit into the community, successfully appealed the ruling to the Board of Appeals.

"It looks like a hotel," said Fred Cascio, 42, a cabinetmaker leading a small band of Catonsville residents in the fight against the assisted-living facility.

Parkside appealed to Circuit Court, but Judge Alfred L. Brennan Sr. rejected the appeal, citing the company's "general disregard for the review process."

The county, which had filed zoning violations, agreed not to pursue penalties against the home while the legal fight continued. But the home has withdrawn an appeal to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, and Jablon is threatening Parkside Assisted Living with fines of $200 a day.

Brennan has agreed to Parkside's request for an order staying "fines and restrictions" by Jablon while it seeks to comply with the zoning law for a smaller facility.

"He can fine me until he's blue in the face, but if I have an order that stays the fines, they are meaningless," Michael Decker said.

Jablon said the order does not apply to his department.

Pub Date: 3/25/99

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