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.