Korean businessman John Hwon never once paid his rent late during the four years he ran his car repair shop, Montgomery Auto Tech, in the Plaza 355 industrial park in Rockville. That's why the eviction notice two years ago from the management company came as a surprise.

The management company said it was evicting the park's four auto shops because they were creating a parking problem for other tenants. But Hwon's surprise turned to anger when he discovered that only his garage and another Korean-owned auto shop had been asked to leave.

The other two auto shops at Plaza 355, which Hwon said are both owned by whites, had their leases renewed. Yet when Hwon filed a discrimination complaint with Montgomery County's Human Relations Commission, he got another shock -- the county could do nothing because there were no laws specifically prohibiting discrimination in commercial real estate leasing.

Now, however, the Montgomery County Council, motivated by Hwon's case and others like his, has moved to correct the omission. It recently voted unanimously to amend the county's antidiscrimination law to cover commercial real estate transactions.

The change in Montgomery's Human Relations and Civil Liberties law, now awaiting County Executive Sidney Kramer's signature, would bar consideration of race, sex, religion, national origin and seven other characteristics when leasing, selling or financing commercial real estate.

The change would give a person who feels he has been discriminated against for any of these reasons a right to complain to the county's Human Relations Commission, which before had no authority to take complaints involving commercial real estate, said Michael Dennis, the commission's compliance director.

Since the time that Hwon's lease was not renewed, four other auto repair shops have opened in the same complex -- none of them minority owned. A new car wash at the facility is owned by a Puerto Rican.

Pam Garren, a leasing agent for the management company, Carey Winston, denied that the company evicted Hwon because he is Korean, but could not explain why other auto shops were allowed to open after Hwon left or the other two remain at Plaza 355. Other company officials did not return repeated phone calls.

The revised law extends the same remedies available to victims of housing discrimination to commercial real estate cases. Michael Faden, the county council's senior legislative attorney, said that if the commission finds discrimination it will be able to order owners to pay monetary damages if a business person, for instance, has to lease space elsewhere at a higher rent.

It also will be able to assess punitive damages of up to $1,000 or order an owner to lease or sell the commercial property to the discrimination victim. The law will allow individuals to sue.

In passing the amendments, Montgomery becomes only the third jurisdiction in the United States (Massachussetts and Pennsylvania are the others) to pass laws specifically barring discrimination in commercial real estate transactions.

Currently, federal laws bar discrimination only in residential housing, not commercial realty, according to Todd Patterson, a staff assistant who specializes in minority business issues for the U.S. Senate's Small Business Committee. An 1866 federal civil rights law guarantees property rights, but does not specifically cover commercial real estate, he said.

To use the statute to sue for discrimination would involve a costly federal civil rights action, something few small business people can afford, Patterson said. Montgomery County Council member Ike Leggett, who cosponsored the antidiscrimination bill with council member Michael Subin, said the legislation was needed because of the growing number of complaints from minority business people, particularly Asians.

Dennis said that his office has received two formal complaints about alleged commercial leasing discrimination during the past two years. It also has taken numerous other calls since then, although he said he could not provide an exact number because the commission stopped keeping track after the county attorney said it had no jurisdiction over commercial real estate discrimination cases.

"This is a preventative measure," Leggett said of the commercial real estate provisions. "It's designed as a stop sign. We don't want to ticket people for running the stop sign, we merely want to get them to stop" discriminating.

"But the law also demonstrates the county's commitment to those who are victims that we have a law on the books and we want them to file legitimate complaints," Leggett said.

Nonetheless, James Eichberg, president of Smithy Braedon Co., a commercial real estate developer and management firm, said he doubts that the amended law will have much impact.

"The commercial market is antidiscriminatory to begin with. Owners and leasing agents have no reason to discriminate as long as the organization is a lawful one and has adequate financial records," he said.

Donald Slatton, executive vice president of the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington, said that with a 12 percent vacancy rate in office buildings, "owners are looking for tenants. If you have the money, owners will rent you the space."

Leggett acknowledged that the amendment contains some exceptions that could be used to mask discrimination. For instance, it permits owners to take into consideration a prospective tenant or buyer's financial situation.

Said Leggett: "There are always ways they can get you. They can always fall back on credit reasons or income reasons {for spurning a deal}." But he said the law "is merely a first step" toward stopping discrimination in commercial real estate.