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Hancock business owners frustrated by county red tape

During a forum at the Hancock Community Center, Washington County Board of Commissioners get feedback

June 13, 2012|By DON AINES | dona@herald-mail.com
  • Thor Smith of Rockville, Md., speaks about trying to open an antique store in Hancock during a business forum in Hancock Wednesday.
By Ric Dugan, Staff Photographer

HANCOCK — The Washington County Board of Commissioners on Wednesday heard firsthand accounts of the frustrations small business owners have experienced in trying to start or expand their operations.

During a forum attended by about 30 people at the Hancock Community Center, David Pittman, the owner of Pittman’s Market, recounted how he was told by a county Planning Commission official that he needed a site grading plan after he had been informed it was not required for a project.

The official told him it was in case “the Maryland Department of the Environment might want it later,” he told three of the five commissioners who were present.

“It cost me two weeks” along with engineering costs and permitting fees, Pittman said. “And I’m not sure anybody even looked at it.”

His efforts to replace an existing drain pipe also resulted in more frustration, Pittman said.

“It took me two years to get a permit,” Pittman said.

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He showed the commissioners a county letter that said an official “will be watching the site very closely.”

“I view that as someone who is trying to be difficult,” Pittman said.

Pittman said he had talked to business people who “are scared of retribution if they made waves tonight.”

Thor and Diane Smith of Rockville, Md., have purchased the former Lockhouse Restaurant with plans to turn it into Buddy Lou’s Antiques.

Diane Smith said a project they thought would take 90 days to open will likely take more than a year and cost considerably more because of code compliance.

“We’re hoping we can get it open soon — and not bankrupt us,” Thor Smith said.

“How can you help us? I don’t know, other than cutting us some slack,” Diane Smith said.

“There should be someone in the county government who says, ‘Mr. Smith, I’ve got your back,’” Commissioner Ruth Ann Callaham said.

Commissioner William  McKinley said there should be some way the county’s permitting process can be expedited.

While going from a restaurant to an antiques store is a less intensive use of the property, it is a change of use, and codes have become more stringent, County Administrator Gregory B. Murray said.

“There needs to be some flexibility,” or many older buildings will go unused, Hancock Town Manager David Smith said.

Randy and Penny Pittman own Pittman’s Liquors, Weaver’s Restaurant and the Blue Goose Fruit Market & Bakery, which opened last year.

“There are some issues with permits. They’re not as friendly as they could be,” Penny Pittman said of the permitting process for the Blue Goose. “It’s very frustrating.”

Other business people aired similar frustrations over county and municipal regulations.

“They’ve made it impossible to have a business in this town,” said Becky Percy, owner of the Redneck Mall.

She complained that the municipal sign ordinance was unevenly enforced, with some businesses getting around it by putting up numerous small signs or hanging banners that do not require permits.

“We want to hear their complaints,” Commissioner Jeff Cline said.

County government has to do a better job of “customer service,” he said.

Helping businesses expand or start up is good for both the business owners and government, because the sooner a business opens and makes a profit, the sooner the county can get revenue, Cline said.

“What I got was a sense of the frustration of the small business owner,” Callaham said. “For businesses, time is money and government cannot stand in the way.”

“We intend to do this in all four regions of the county,” Robin Ferree of the Hagerstown--Washington County Economic Development Commission said of the business forum.

The commissioners have also been meeting with small businesses on Thursdays to better understand their needs, Cline said.

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