Nearly two years have passed since the last couple said their “I do’s” below the arbor at Shade Trees & Evergreens.
The arbor is gone, demolished along with other unpermitted buildings once central to the now-closed wedding venue near Libertytown. The business liquidated its assets by filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in July.
But the closing of the longtime business remains a source of concern for County Councilman Billy Shreve (R), who has repeatedly blamed the county for forcing Shade Trees to shut its doors. The county stopped Shade Trees from holding events in May 2016 after receiving a complaint that the business did not have proper permits and violated the county’s zoning ordinance.
Chief among Shreve’s criticisms was the source of the discovered violations: a letter sent from Baltimore by a man who identified himself as Charles Goodnight, most likely a fake name referencing the well-known 19th-century Texas cattle rancher. A copy of the letter was obtained by The Frederick News-Post through a public records request.
“We have people from outside of the county and anonymously trying to shut down our county businesses, and that’s not right,” Shreve said in a recent interview. “We need to try to get ahead of this.”
At least one other local business, Bussard Brothers Landscaping Supply, was found to violate county zoning laws based on an anonymous complaint. Bussard Brothers has neither been forced to close nor fined while the county works on a solution.
A bill introduced by Shreve earlier this year seeks to prohibit the county from acting on any complaints reported anonymously. For complaints from identified sources, the legislation requires verification from a second person who must be a county resident.
Shreve framed his proposal as one of government transparency and accountability. He also described the anonymity clause as a constitutional matter, referring to the Sixth Amendment. Best known for guaranteeing the right to a speedy trial by an impartial jury, the amendment also states that those accused in criminal prosecutions are entitled to “be confronted with the witnesses against him.”
Others disagreed with the effectiveness and practicality of his proposal.
County Executive Jan Gardner (D) framed the legislation as unnecessary and potentially chilling — precluding residents who might not want to report complaints with their names attached for fear of conflict with neighbors.
Ray Barnes, the county’s administrative officer, also cited problems with the legislation in a public hearing this month. With about 25 percent of zoning complaints reported from anonymous sources, banning even an investigation inhibits the county’s ability to protect the health, safety and welfare of its residents, he said.
From a practical standpoint, finding a second resident to verify complaints might be challenging, particularly in more rural areas where neighbors live farther apart, Barnes said.
And not every business-related complaint amounts to a zoning violation. The most frequent complaints are not about businesses at all; unregistered vehicles, trash in yards and other property maintenance problems top the list, according to Tolson DeSa, the county’s zoning administrator.
DeSa estimated the county receives one or two business-related complaints per month. Some are for zoning violations, but there are also complaints about businesses operating out of residential properties and noise, DeSa said.
A majority of complainants are from county residents, including an unnamed neighbor who called to notify the county about the zoning violations with Bussard Brothers’ mulching operations, according to a report of all county zoning violations between September 2015 and September 2017. Shreve obtained the report through a Public Information Act request in the fall, and shared a copy of it with The News-Post.
After accusing the county executive’s office of violating public information laws over the time it took to respond to his request for zoning violations, Shreve also sought to make that information more readily available. His bill requires the zoning administrator with providing monthly updates to the County Council on business-related complaints.
Shreve has not filed any PIAs since the request in the fall for zoning violations, according to Vivian Laxton, county spokeswoman. Shreve confirmed that this part of his bill was based on his experiences alone; he did not know if other council members had experienced problems getting information on zoning violations.
Barnes, speaking on behalf of the administration, opposed this part of Shreve’s bill for creating more and unnecessary responsibilities for county employees. He also noted that zoning enforcement is an administrative, rather than a legislative, duty.
The council was slated to vote on Shreve’s bill Tuesday, but the vote was postponed “until a date to be determined,” according to the online agenda as of Friday night.