A Howard County Circuit Court judge has ordered the county to pay the Pack Shack, an Ellicott City adult book and video store, $187,690 in court costs after the county lost a legal battle in trying to make the business relocate.
Judge James B. Dudley's ruling - which was filed Friday and mailed to lawyers Tuesday - awarded the business, on U.S. 40 near Normandy Woods Way, somewhat less than the $224,837 it had sought.
"It clearly vindicates my client's First Amendment rights," lawyer Howard J. Schulman, who represents the store, said yesterday when he learned of the ruling.
Dudley's ruling is the latest development in the nearly six-year legal battle that began after the county's attempt to restrict adult bookstores through an ordinance that the Maryland Court of Appeals declared unconstitutional last year.
The county can appeal the order. Carol Saffran-Brinks, an assistant county solicitor with the Office of Law, said she has not had the opportunity to review the decision with the county and therefore could not comment.
County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican who lives about a mile from the store, said he views the ruling as "a loss for decency in our community."
Schulman noted that the matter deals with a small business, not an institution like General Motors.
"This particular ruling, in addition to the Court of Appeals ruling, vindicates the First Amendment because it permits people to retain lawyers to stand up to big government when they otherwise wouldn't have the resources," he said.
The Pack Shack challenged the county ordinance, adopted by the County Council in December 1997, that required that adult-entertainment businesses - including adult bookstores, movie theaters and live entertainment clubs - be at least 500 feet from residential communities, libraries, schools, parks, day care centers and churches, as well as at least 2,500 feet from any other sexually oriented business.
The Normandy Woods apartment complex is less than 500 feet from the Pack Shack.
In February 1999, Pack Shack filed an injunction to prevent Howard County from forcing it to move, claiming the county ordinance violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article 40 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights.
The county won at every level except at the Maryland Court of Appeals, which ruled the law was too limiting, resulting in unconstitutional infringement on freedom of speech.
In initially seeking court costs, Pack Shack asked for court fees of $171,271 and $24,011 for expenses. But since the matter of court costs first arose in March, the parties have "engaged in substantial discovery, have overwhelmed the Court with excessive pleadings, and as a result of the rigid positions taken by the parties" the Pack Shack increased its requested amount to a total of $224,837, according to Dudley's ruling.
The county has approved a new ordinance that keeps adult-entertainment businesses at least 300 feet from any residential zone, school or place of worship and requires that such stores be at least 1,000 feet from each other.