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Fighting for right to sell fish


Along with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, T. F. "Tedd" Biddle counts among her rights one other: the right to sell fish.

For the past year she has been fighting Annapolis City Hall, collecting petition signatures, quoting passages of Maryland's 17th-century charter to the City Council, even threatening an alderman with impeachment. All this to exercise her right to sell fish from a boat at the City Dock.

Now, at last, the City Council has agreed to take up her case.

This month, the council gave initial approval to a bill that would amend the city code so fish could be sold from boats at the City Dock. The council's Rules Committee will hold a public hearing on the bill Wednesday. If all goes as scheduled, the council will vote on the issue in September.

Though the wheels of government have started moving, Ms. Biddle, 32, still has to convince a skeptical council.

"If it's just another eatery place, I'm not sure that's what we want," said Alderman Shep Tullier, a Ward 4 Democrat. "I'm not sure it is in keeping with the character of the City Dock."

To Ms. Biddle, an admitted eccentric who calls herself a fishmonger, nothing could be more natural at the City Dock than a fish vendor.

Born in Palos Verdes, Calif., Ms. Biddle grew up dreaming of going to sea.

"I wanted to be like St. Peter and Hemingway," she said, her fish earrings dangling as she laughed.

When she was 18, she read an article about a commercial fishing school, and decided to enroll. That year, she joined a commercial crew fishing off the California coast.

She was hooked on fish.

She quit commercial fishing after a year, became a private consultant for the restaurant and seafood industries. In 1990, she moved to Annapolis and soon after joined the state's Office of Seafood Marketing.

That job lasted six months. State agriculture officials say her contractual job was one of many eliminated in state budget cuts. Ms. Biddle says she lost her job after she blew the whistle on wasteful spending.

After leaving the agriculture department, Ms. Biddle decided to stay in Annapolis. Her family had moved to the area and she was captivated by the city and its Catholic heritage.

"It speaks to me," said Ms. Biddle, who is a Catholic.

A year ago, she decided to go into business and planned to sell fish from a boat at the City Dock. She calls the enterprise her last attempt to find the American dream.

She wants to sell a variety of fresh and processed seafoods from the Chesapeake Bay and around the world. A sample menu printed on parchment-like paper includes oysters on the half shell, grilled oyster sandwiches, caviar and steak tartare, smoked fish pates, fish tacos, a champagne sorbet.

Ms. Biddle also has enlisted the help of a number of investors. She won't reveal how much has been spent on the business, but said the total investment will be less than $24,000.

John Willard, an Annapolis boatwright and one of the investors, met Ms. Biddle last year when she asked to buy his 1941 wooden fishing boat. She came away with a boat and an investor. Mr. Willard believes that though Ms. Biddle is eccentric, she can make her project work.

"She is so determined," he said.

After buying the 37-foot boat, Ms. Biddle renamed it, Rights of Man, as a testament to her belief that selling fish is a right granted to Maryland citizens by the king of England, and reinforced by federal and state constitutions.

Still, she won't be able to sell a fin until the city government changes the zoning restrictions at City Dock. Several times she has appeared before the council to ask for a change in the law.

Once she presented a petition signed by 600 people who supported her effort to sell fish.

The city's blueprint for downtown revitalization, known as the Ward One Sector Study, calls for a City Dock that is a working waterfront, rather than a sanitized "East Coast re-creation of Disneyland." The report recommends the city consider allowing the sale of fish from boats.

Alderman Dean Johnson, a Ward 2 Independent and head of the Rules Committee, said he agreed to co-sponsor the bill to change the zoning laws.

"It intrigues me because it's another form of activity," he said. "It doesn't involve liquor and it provides a possible return to the way things were downtown."

But, Mr. Johnson notes, a number of issues will have to be resolved, including trash removal, taxes and health inspections.

Louise Hammond, a Democrat who represents the downtown area, questions the concept.

"I have a problem with the whole philosophy of the city renting public property to use for businesses," she said. "Who are we going to say 'No' to?"

Ms. Biddle, however, won't be dissuaded. "It's so clear this is a right," she said.

As she waits for the council to vote, she spends much of her time refurbishing her boat at the Willard & Sons Marina. A gear needs to be replaced in the engine, and the vessel needs to be painted. The stainless steel sinks and refrigerators sit on the ground, waiting to be installed.

But she is confident the Rights of Man will pull up to the City Dock in September, filled with fresh delicacies from the sea.

She also plans to offer one other item not on the menu: pocket-sized versions of the U.S. Constitution.

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