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Zoning issue pits county against Elkridge auto shop owner — again

Brian Wilson, owner of Elkridge Motors, stands in front of a disputed parking lot that was the subject of a zoning hearing Feb. 6 — part of a long-running series of disputes Wilson has had in the past two decades with county zoning officials.
Brian Wilson, owner of Elkridge Motors, stands in front of a disputed parking lot that was the subject of a zoning hearing Feb. 6 — part of a long-running series of disputes Wilson has had in the past two decades with county zoning officials. (Staff photo by Sara Pastrana)

More than 25 years ago, when Brian Wilson first saw the small auto repair shop perched high on a residential stretch of Montgomery Road in Elkridge, he knew he wanted to buy it.

He didn't know doing so would make him a target of county zoning inspectors, forcing him to spend hours in court and zoning hearings, defending his property against a string of alleged violations over a span of three decades.

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At the time, he was living well in Laurel and working at a car dealership in the District of Columbia. But the small garage was calling his name. It reminded him of working as a kid at the family auto shop of a buddy in western Pennsylvania. As a car collector, he envisioned turning the established Elkridge business, where repairs have occurred for decades, into a hobby shop, he said.

"It was the American dream," he said. "It's what I always wanted to do."

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In 1990, when the shop's owner agreed to lease it and the house next to it, Wilson jumped at the opportunity, he said. He bought the property soon after.

Then the zoning battles began, with Department of Planning and Zoning officials zeroing in on Wilson's residentially zoned but commercially used property and neighbors pushing their way into the debate.

In 1993, the county challenged Wilson's right to operate the auto shop, and the case went all the way to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals in Annapolis before finally being resolved in Wilson's favor in 1997 by the county's Board of Appeals — which the court had remanded it to after finding flaws in that board's initial ruling against Wilson.

In 2004, the county issued Wilson zoning violations for having large shipping containers and large dump trucks on his property. He appealed, which brought him before then-Howard County Hearing Examiner Thomas Carbo, who forced him to remove the shipping containers but dismissed the dump truck violation for lack of evidence.

Another hearing

Fast forward to Monday, Feb. 6, and Wilson was once again facing questioning about his property, before current hearing examiner Michele LeFaivre.

Wilson, 49, is currently petitioning for another non-conforming use for a parking lot on a separate piece of his property down the hill from the auto shop, which some neighbors consider an eyesore but which he is unapologetic for.

"We can't just stand out here and polish the parking lots and stay in business. Sometimes it's dirty work," he said on a recent afternoon on his property. "But it's the same work that's been going on on this property since the '30s, and I can't make any apologies for it."

At the hearing, Wilson testified the parking lot is an established "accessory use to the predominant use of the property," which he said is the auto shop.

He questioned the parameters of his existing non-conforming use from 1997, which he said he never got to appeal, and said no ruling would prevent him from parking his own operable, licensed vehicles on the lot, an argument substantiated by a DPZ official in a prior interview.

Thomas Meachum, the attorney hired by neighbors who oppose Wilson's petition, questioned those arguments in cross examination.

Then LeFaivre raised the issue of DPZ's technical staff report, which recommends denying Wilson's petition and includes eight aerial images of the property dating back to 1957 that call into question Wilson's assertion that the parking lot has existed for decades in much the same state as it is in now.

When Wilson said he had never received a copy of the Jan. 30 report, which he called "quite important," the hearing came to an abrupt standstill, and after a brief discussion, LeFaivre ordered a continuance of the hearing, to be scheduled within the next two weeks.

Wilson said he appreciated LeFaivre's fairness, but was frustrated with DPZ for not providing him a copy of the report.

"Once again, DPZ is up to shenanigans, and you know what? It's getting old," he said.

Neighbors weigh in

Audience members at the hearing seemed uncertain what to think about the postponement.

Barbara Wachs, of nearby Deer Ridge Lane, said a parking lot near a flood plain on a residential road – and near Rockburn Branch Park – is simply inappropriate.

Said Mary Spacek, also of Deer Ridge Lane: "I just object to the fact that it just looks junky."

Van Wensil, who grew up on Wilson's property (her mother, Dorothy Wensil, had inherited it from her own parents before selling it to Wilson), said she felt "very responsible to the neighborhood" for the way the shop has changed under Wilson.

During her childhood, the property had flower gardens, was neatly tended and had few parked cars, Wensil said. She showed pictures from years ago, in which the recognizable property appeared grassy, uncluttered and largely residential.

Under Wilson, that's all changed, she said.

"It's disgraceful. It's not maintained. It's a junkyard," she said.

But many of the more than 25 people at the hearing had planned to speak in support of Wilson.

Talking among themselves before the hearing, they called him a good man who offers neighbors help in snowstorms and cheap auto care.

His shop may be ugly, one woman said, but she would never "in good conscience" speak against him or his right to be in the neighborhood.

Neighbors on both sides of the fence said they'll be back at the next hearing.

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