The Love Craft adult video store in North Laurel violates zoning laws and must close or move, Howard County officials say, though they expect a prolonged legal battle over the issue.
The county recently lost a decade-long legal struggle to displace a similar store - the Pack Shack - on U.S. 40 in Ellicott City.
But zoning inspectors had never visited Love Craft or tried to force the store's owners to comply with provisions of a law restricting the location and regulating operation of adult stores. The county acts on zoning violations only when there is a complaint, and until recently, there was none against Love Craft, officials have said.
After a Baltimore Sun article in August detailing the different treatment the two stores have received from the government, County Executive Ken Ulman directed zoning officials to conduct an inspection.
They determined that Love Craft, in the Laurel Square shopping center along U.S. 1 near the Prince George's County line, occupies land intended for redevelopment into dense, mixed uses, a category that does not permit adult stores.
The store sits on land zoned as a Community Activity Center, a category created to encourage redevelopment along the U.S. 1 commercial corridor, part of a plan targeting Laurel Square as an example of the area's "negative image." Love Craft is next to Lily's Spa, which advertises "relaxation massage services," while a third tenant is a large pawn shop.
The redevelopment effort is embodied in the new, four-story Ashbury Court mixed-use apartment and retail building that sits less than 200 feet from Love Craft's back door.
Love Craft appears to violate several strictures of the 2004 county law. Regulations require adult stores to be more than 300 feet from residential property, schools, churches or recreational facilities. The law also prohibits closed video viewing booths, which both stores have.
The Pack Shack's booths have drawn attention for issues other than zoning considerations. Three years ago county police arrested five men and charged them with indecent exposure in connection with complaints of lewd behavior involving the booths. And last month, a 61-year-old Cambridge man died after suffering a heart attack while inside one of the Pack Shack's video viewing booths, county police said.
The law also says the owners must apply for a permit and declare their identity. Neither was done for Love Craft, county officials said.
Last week, a clerk at the North Laurel store said he was aware the county inspection had occurred but knew nothing else about the case. He declined to identify himself or the owners.
The county gave Love Craft until yesterday to close or move, or face a civil citation and be summoned to a hearing.
Love Craft and the Pack Shack are among 18 similar stores in the Baltimore region that advertise jointly in catalogs for adult material.
The Pack Shack's owners appealed rulings against it all the way to the state's highest court, which declared the original 1997 county law too restrictive. The county was ordered to pay the store owners' legal fees of $187,690. A new, less restrictive law was approved in 2004.
Last summer, the Pack Shack's operators used the building's basement to stack enough non-sexual materials to escape definition as an adult store under the revised law. To qualify as an adult store, a business must have sexual material that covers at least 20 percent of floor space and comprises at least 20 percent of the sale stock.
The county reinspected the store and found it no longer can be defined an adult video store, despite the large "ADULT" sign out front or the sexually explicit material and viewing booths that dominate the first floor.
That option does not appear to be workable for Love Craft, said Tony LaRose, the county zoning supervisor who inspected the store.
"They can't legally operate," LaRose said. "They don't have a basement like Pack Shack."
Nor does LaRose expect a swift outcome, saying the legal wrangling could continue for up to three years.
Some who participated in protests against the Pack Shack when it opened in 1997 welcome the new scrutiny.
"Oh, I think it's a wonderful thing that the county is enforcing the zoning laws," said John Baronas, an Ellicott City resident who has opposed the Pack Shack and urged the county to more sharply restrict adult stores.