Snowball's Chance in Annapolis


Summertime. The song makes it sound so much better than it is.

The livin' is easy -- only if you're rich enough to be able to lie in a hammock and sip lemonade all day. The fish may be jumpin', but so are the mosquitoes. The cotton is high, and so is the lawn.

Fortunately, we have several blessings to help us muddle through. Cold watermelon. A dip in the pool. Fireflies. Snowcones. Except if you're in downtown Annapolis. Then you can't even get one of those.

One of the big stories during this busy news week centers around the plight of Madeleine Rubin-Knoll, 46, an out-of-work day care provider who wants to sell snowballs from her mother's yard on Francis Street to help her and her two children get through the summer.

The city won't let her. This is, after all, historic Annapolis, the city that fights Spiderman posters and yogurt shops.

Don't be too quick to cast this as a tale of Evil Bureaucracy vs. the Little Guy, however. There's a bit of unreasonableness on both sides here.

Ms. Rubin-Knoll set up her snowball stand over Memorial Day weekend, not knowing, she says, that sidewalk vendors aren't allowed in the historic district. The police promptly shut her down.

The next day she went to City Hall to see about getting a license. But city law prohibits street vendors and peddlers in the historic district even with a license. Licensed peddlers can sell throughout the rest of the city.

So Ms. Rubin-Knoll started looking for a way around the law. She wrote to Mayor Al Hopkins informing him she planned to set up a snowball stand -- not to sell snowballs, but to give them away. "However," she wrote, "voluntary donations will be accepted," with a portion going to charity.

Perhaps the snowball business is more lucrative than I thought, but I can't help wondering how someone who decides to sell snowballs because she needs the money expects to make enough giving them away to be able to donate to charity. Anyway, that's what Ms. Rubin-Knoll says she would do.

The city still says no.

If she wishes to pursue this matter, the city says she has to apply for a peddler's license, which will be denied since peddling isn't allowed in the historic district, then appeal her case to the city Board of Appeals.

As nuttily convoluted as that sounds, that's what I would do if I felt as strongly as Ms. Rubin-Knoll that my snowball stand ought to be allowed in downtown Annapolis.

But Ms. Rubin-Knoll refuses to apply for a peddler's license.

"I'm not a peddler," she says. "I'm giving snowballs away. There's

nothing in the code that says you can't do that. . . . Why should I fill out a form that doesn't apply to me?"

Monday night, she and a friend, M. Neal Jacobs of Laurel, who has been helping her with the snowball venture, asked the City Council to let them go straight to the Board of Appeals without applying for a license.

Council members not only said no; they said no with cherry-flavored ice in their voices and fire in their eyes.

At this point, the Great Snowball Fight leaves us with two questions:

First, why are Ms. Rubin-Knoll and Mr. Jacobs so opposed to going through the process?

They might not win. In fact, knowing the city and its paranoid fear of anything remotely resembling kitsch, I suspect they wouldn't. But they certainly won't get their snowball stand as long as they refuse to follow city procedures.

Why waste time arguing whether a snowball stand operator who gives snowballs away for a donation qualifies as a peddler? Clearly Ms. Rubin hopes to make a few dollars from this enterprise. Why not just go back to saying you want to sell snowballs, apply for the darned license and give it your best shot before the Board of Appeals?

If Ms. Rubin-Knoll had done that just after she was shut down on Memorial Day, she might be near to getting an appeals hearing right now.

As far as the city is concerned, the big question is what it has against snowball stands in the first place. In every other town in America they're a beloved icon of summer. In Annapolis, they're a harbinger of social ruin.

The very idea of making an exception for them in the city code sends some council members into a tizzy.

Yes, yes, it's the old argument that if you give an inch downtown, you lose a yard. A snowball stand today, a hotdog stand tomorrow, "Party Naked" t-shirt stands the day after that.

Come now. A little common sense, please.

The slope leading from a kid's lemonade booth (which presumably also would be shut down) to Sin City just isn't that slippery.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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