The small parking lot just off U.S. 40 in Ellicott City sits on the legal equivalent of a fault line - and after years of relative dormancy, its precarious location is threatening to destroy the lot.
Part of the property paved over for the parking lot off North Chatham Road is zoned commercial and part is zoned residential, according to county officials. They say the land also lies in a stream buffer.
Department of Planning and Zoning officials are taking the owner of the lot to District Court to get it removed, five years after issuing him a written warning. A judge was scheduled to hear the case yesterday, but the owner was granted a postponement.
Deputy County Solicitor Paul T. Johnson said the parking lot - originally gravel, and paved two years ago - is an inappropriate use of the parcel.
"Most of the land is residential," he said.
Raju Varghese, who co-owns the Malabar Plaza, the land on which the parking lot sits, contends that most of the land is zoned commercial and couldn't be used for anything but parking.
He said the land had a parking lot before he bought the parcel in the early 1980s with a partner. Now it's 4,400 square feet, with about eight spaces, he said.
Varghese said that he is being targeted because he's Indian.
"There was a violation, but there are so many violations in that corridor," he said. "If they are applying the violations equally, I wouldn't mind, but they're singling us out."
The location of the parking lot, just off U.S. 40, bridges the heavily commercial strip and the houses tucked out of view of the road. A Jiffy Lube stands in front of the lot; the Plumtree Stream runs behind it.
The eventual day in court will be none too soon for Lynne Bergling, president of the St. John's Community Association, who has complained to county officials that the owner is violating the rules.
When Varghese got an administrative adjustment of the zoning in 1998 - which would have made the entire parcel commercial - Bergling appealed the decision to the Zoning Board.
The board ruled in her favor last year.
Bergling said her complaint wasn't racially motivated. The environmental impact of the parking lot concerned her, she said. Since it was paved in 1998, the nearby stream often has backed up over a culvert onto North Chatham Road when it rains, she said.
"I complained because of the stream," said Bergling, who lives about 500 feet south of the parking lot. "The longer [the violation] goes unabated, the more damage is done."
"I've been here since '85, and that road flooded once before he paved that parking lot," she said.
Varghese said the parking lot isn't to blame for flooding. Tree limbs and large items - including shopping carts, which he says his groundskeeper removed - have backed up the stream banks, he said.
Johnson estimates that the county takes 10 to 20 zoning cases to trial annually of about 100 zoning violations the Department of Planning and Zoning investigates. Most involve such violations as unregistered vehicles parked on residential property, or companies building without approved site development plans.
The parking lot case is out of the ordinary, he said. "This is not our typical zoning violation."