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Comfort Zone to Remain in Business, at Least for Now

After a five-hour discussion, the county Board of Appeals needs more evidence before it can make their ruling.

A controversial store on Baltimore Avenue will remain open at least until May, after the county's Board of Appeals failed to reach a decision on the store's compliance with its permit Wednesday evening.

The Comfort Zone — the sex store or variety store, depending who you ask — was referred to the county after store co-owner Robert Carl from the city of College Park's code enforcement.

The county’s Board of Zoning Appeals could not determine Wednesday whether the store, located at 9721 Baltimore Ave., is in compliance with its use and occupancy (U&O) permit. The U&O permit allows Comfort Zone to operate as a variety store, not unlike the national chain Spencer's Gifts, said College Park city attorney Suellen Ferguson.

Though the permit allows adult products to comprise up to 10 percent of the store’s inventory, Comfort Zone was issued a violation in October after the city’s code enforcement determined that adult products make up the bulk of the store's merchandise.

The majority of Wednesday’s hearing was spent deliberating what exactly separates a sex toy from a novelty gift. 

Jeannie Ripley, the city’s code enforcement manager, testified that she visited the Comfort Zone on Oct. 18, six days after the violation was issued. She took pictures of the store’s inventory during her visit, and the photographs were presented as a stack of evidence during the hearing.

Roughly an hour was spent parsing through the photographs, with Ripley describing in detail her perspective of the merchandise.

Levi Zaslow, Carl’s attorney, objected to the use of the term “sex toy” in each instance it was used.

Zaslow also added that because Ripley visited the store on Oct. 18 — not Oct. 12, when the violation was issued — none of the evidence bore any relevance to the case, since her visit occurred afterward. 

Another large portion of the hearing was dedicated to a cross-examination, wherein Zaslow questioned Ripley about the store’s non-adult content, like the baseball cards and non-adult DVDs. Much of the inventory had been individually counted — for example, Ripley determined that Comfort Zone had 1,571 non-adult DVDs in stock when she visited in October.

Two College Park residents testified during the hearing, one of whom was Ryan Curtis, who lives in a condominium fewer than 100 feet from the Comfort Zone. Curtis brought with him a petition signed by 13 residents in favor of closing the business. He said that though he was unsure of the exact definition of a novelty store, he said the Comfort Zone was not a business that he wanted to have near his home.

“The standard I have in my head is, would I let someone under the age of 18 into this store,” Curtis said. “The mere thought of having my 4-year-old or 2-year-old in Comfort Zone makes me incensed, frankly.”

But Stephen Sawicki, a Bethesda resident and Comfort Zone customer, testified that he doesn’t see Comfort Zone’s merchandise as being explicitly sexual.

“Basically, I think it is a lot like a Spencer’s in the upstairs,” Sawicki said. “Maybe a little bit more edgy — definitely for people who are 18 or older, not necessarily children.”

He added that Comfort Zone also has a selection of 2,000 to 3,000 non-adult DVDs, which are priced at roughly $5 each, as well as baseball cards.

In order to make the case that Comfort Zone is violating its U&O, Ferguson requested a subpoena showing a history of the store’s sales as a means of illustrating the type of merchandise the store was actually selling. She said that the stacks of comic books, baseball cards and DVDs in the store are not intended for sale but rather to inflate the ratio of non-adult items the store sells to comply with the 10 percent stipulation.

“In fact there are no sales of any of these things going on at this store,” Ferguson said, adding that many of the items didn’t have price tags.

Though Zaslow countered that only the inventory — not the sales — were relevant to the case, the board said it is interested in seeing more documents from the Comfort Zone.

The board scheduled a continuation of the hearing from May 11.

Lauren Evans March 03, 2011 at 10:59 PM
"Though Zaslow countered that only the inventory — not the sales — were relevant to the case, the board said it is interested in seeing more documents from the Comfort Zone." And as I understand it, the 10 percent limit is included in the U&O.
Rich Abdill March 06, 2011 at 09:19 PM
They seem to be trying to balance between overreaching as a moral authority and being responsive to residents' concerns. I don't buy the "I don't want my 4-year-old in there!" argument either — the same argument could be made for liquor stores and hookah bars, but it's not. Because those places, just like the Comfort Zone, aren't intended for kids. It's just way easier to fight against dildos (dildoes?) than it is to fight against beer.
Jon Gulbuny March 07, 2011 at 03:15 AM
"The mere thought of having my 4-year-old or 2-year-old in Comfort Zone makes me incensed, frankly" Maybe the city should send that parent to the courts cause who would let their 2 year old in a sex store? I allow my 2yr old to walk up rt 1 with no sidewalk to their store. Um herro?? Just more of the city trying to overstep its bounds to regulate something that doesn't need regulation. When will the gov intervention stop? Just like the previous poster said, if the city didn't want dildos then the store would be out of business.
Emil Farkwarp March 07, 2011 at 03:25 PM
I've been searching for one place to buy porn and baseball cards. Nce to know this headache is TCO.
protus March 07, 2011 at 08:30 PM
This issue is about the exercise of power and control over those whose interests are different from those of the complaining parties. It is about intollerance, selfassertiveness, meanness, selfishness and the the "truths to be held self evident" that even though "all men are created equal with certain inalienable rights" those rights are limited by those people that think theirselves to be more equal than others and therefore their self centered opinions are the sole basis for judging anything. I would have no objection to a parent being in the sex store with their 2 or 4 year old as at that age they would not be prone to absorbing anything out of their scope of reality and certainly the parents should be the ones that decide what is appropriate for their child. Stick with your own family those of you complaining and stop trying to decide what is best for anybody else. Live your own lives and stop trying to live other people's lives for them.

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