BLOG: A moment of Zen at the zoning board

Sean Philip Cotter

Rhon Friend just wanted to cut a few people's hair.

Not even a whole bunch of people — just some "VIP customers," as the longtime stylist put it — one person at a time, a few people a day; he'd run big salons around York City for several years, cutting Mayor Kim Bracey's hair for a while, and now he was scaling back.

Or, viewed through the lens of the city's zoning codes, breaking the law.

Yep, there's a codified definition for a "neighborhood hair-care center" — or salon or barber shop, if you're an actual English-speaking human being — and in the part of town where he'd been cutting hair, such establishments have to be on the corner.

His, at 103 N. Newberry St., was not. It was one door down.

Rhon Friend and his sister, Carolyn.

Let's start this tale with a little bit about Friend. When he first moved to York City from Baltimore, he had to live in the YMCA. He started cutting hair, became a licensed stylist and eventually was about to open up his own place.

At one point, that was in the building next to the one in question on Newberry — he had the adjacent one on the corner. He started a "neighborhood hair-care center" there, called Friends: The Salon, and eventually had to knock down a wall to expand it, as he and the several stylists working under him had business booming.

Then he moved out and bounced around from storefront to storefront a little bit before settling right next door to that spot on the corner of West Philadelphia and North Newberry streets. That corner property, where he had to knock out the wall to expand his salon, is now The Rooted Artist Collective.

So recently he was cutting a few loyal customers' hair a day in that not-quite-corner property before someone complained to the city. City staff checked it out and sent him a cease-and-desist letter, so he ceased, desisted and brought his case before the zoning hearing board Thursday night.

He asked them to let him go against the code and continue operating his little salon.

Let's take a second and talk about zoning codes. Woo-hoo! I don't normally like to get into zoning-board minutia in my articles, as I like, y'know, to have people read my stuff. But I will here, because it's important to the case, and, hey, you've read this far, so at this point you might as well just keep going. Right?

The zoning codes tell you a bunch of things you can and can't do with a building, based on how the area the property's in is zoned. You can only have X amount of housing units per acre, you need Y parking spaces per apartment, the building must be set back Z feet from the property line, you can have an "adult entertainment facility" downtown as long as you ask first. Those kinds of things.

But plenty of buildings don't conform to those codes, especially older ones, and sometimes others for various reasons, so you can request what's called a variance. You say something like: Hey, I know this says buildings can only be 40 feet high in this zone, but I need to exceed that. And, importantly, you have to give reasons why the code causes you undue hardship. That's the key word: hardship.

That, as board member Franklin Williams noted, that has specific legal definitions, too: It's not talking about personal hardship — it's hardship caused by the code on the property based on the reasons the property exists.

Or, as board member Franklin Williams put it to Friend: "There is a language unlike any other language: It's zone-plan lingo.' ... That to me sounds like hardship, but in zone-plan lingo, it might not be."

Board president Bob Hollis said the same: "My emotions want me to go in one direction, but my ordinance hat keeps my going in the other direction."

It looked like they weren't going to let him do it.

Apartment building in Doctor's Row gets OK

Part of the issue is that when the board members grant a variance, it sticks with the property — not the owner. So if they give him permission to have a salon there, the next person to buy it can start running a salon there, and it might be a larger, higher-trafficked operation than what Friend's doing.

Friend's building's in a mixed urban zone, one that's meant to be mostly residential, but can have some commercial properties, as long as they're on the corners. That's meant to "preserve the residential core of the block," board member Michael Miller said.

Then Williams spoke back up. For some background, he's a guy who comes to most city council meetings and speaks pretty much every time council opens the floor, telling me once that "a public-comment session is a terrible thing to waste," before serenading the council with the Maryland state song to make some point I've since forgotten about.

On this occasion Thursday night, with his usual dramatic flair, Williams lamented what he saw as overly stringent laws.

"If we'd have had these codes 125 years ago, the city of York would not be what it is," he said. " We'd all need a piss permit and fart fee. We couldn't do anything without the government say-so."

The board members haggled, and then haggled some more. None of them wanted to screw Friend over, but some of them — like Hollis and Miller — sort of thought they might have to. But board solicitor John Herrold more or less came to the rescue: He told the board they can attach the conditions that Friend not put a sign out for the salon, and that only one licensed stylist be able to operate there at one time. Those conditions also carry over with the variance, so they aren't opening it up to more major businesses in the future.

And this property is right next to the corner, Miller said, so they aren't really breaking from the spirit of the law.

All four zoning board members voted "yes." Friend grinned, Franklin Williams saluted the flag — everyone was happy.

Rhon Friend — "The H is for 'hair,'" Rhon said outside of the meeting after he got the OK, now all smiles — was just glad they'd let him do his damn job. Though those are my words, not his; he's way too nice to put it that way. Outside the chambers, he hugged his sister, Carolyn Friend, and Joe Musso, a local developer and former city council president who'd spoken on Rhon's behalf regarding some of the codes miscellany.

"I'm grateful I get to exercise my craft," he told me, beaming.

Then, ever the businessman, he asked me to include his website if I write about him. Sure, man: It's

Had they denied him, I would have written a news story about it, but because they figured out a way, it's a feel-good blog post. I can't entirely put my finger on why, but this all sort of reminded me of this classic Los Angeles Times column I'm pretty sure people proved the late columnist Al Martinez more or less just made up, but is still good.

Anyway: Cut on, Rhon.

— Reach Sean Cotter at or on Twitter at @SPCotterYD. Look for his news reporting about York City daily online and in print, and keep an eye out for a new installment of this blog periodically, or have Facebook keep an eye out for you: Like the Developing Story page.