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Roadside vendors feel heat


Whenever Lorraine Gray has a hankering for crabs, she sets out for Ritchie Highway.

That's where the best live crabs can be found, the Crofton resident said last week as she ordered up a dozen large males from the back of Tony Fernandez's beat-up, blue Ford Ranger.

"I'd miss [Tony] if he weren't here," Mrs. Gray said.

Soon, he may not be. Mr. Fernandez said he and other roadside vendors -- hawking everything from flowers to sunglasses and velvet Elvises -- may be banished from Anne Arundel County next week.

On Tuesday evening, the County Council is expected to approve a law restricting itinerant merchants to commercial centers and requiring them to prove they have adequate and safe parking. Farmers selling their own produce from their own property would be exempt.

Although Councilman James E. "Ed" DeGrange, the bill's sponsor, said he only wants mobile vendors to comply with the same rules that other businesses must follow, Mr. Fernandez sees a more sinister force at work. He said Mr. DeGrange is acting at the urging of seafood restaurants and other established retailers who are trying to eliminate competition.

"If you're in the second grade, you can read between the lines and see what he is doing," said Mr. Fernandez. "Mr. DeGrange and his crowd are trying to run [roadside vendors] right into the ground."

Lawmakers around the state have grappled for more than a decade with how and where to allow mobile vendors to set up. The General Assembly voted in 1985 to limit the sale of seafood along Maryland's highways, but State Highway Administration officials say enforcement is still largely left to individual counties.

Zoning inspectors in Harford, Howard, Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties said last week that their offices receive complaints every summer about roadside stands. But how the counties respond varies.

Baltimore County officials said mobile vendors are treated like door-to-door salespeople. Vendors can "sell their goods and move on," said Jim Thompson, supervisor of the Baltimore County Code Enforcement Division. But they are not supposed to set up stands or sell from their cars on the side of the road, he said.

If they do and they are on private property, they must comply with zoning laws, which include the preparation of detailed engineering documents, Mr. Thompson said. "But nine times out of 10, they are in a county or state right-of-way. Then it becomes a matter for county police," he said.

Cpl. Edward Pfister, a lawyer with the Baltimore County Police Legal Division, said officers typically respond only after they receive a complaint -- usually from an established retailer whose business is being undercut. "If they are not bothering anybody, we have higher priorities," Corporal Pfister said.

Howard County planner Steve Bockmiller said mobile vendors are not specifically addressed in county law. Generally, he said they would be required to obtain a trader's license and to go through the same zoning process as other retailers.

Mr. Bockmiller said the county would probably ignore roadside vendors unless a stand created a traffic hazard or the county received a written complaint.

Harford County lawmakers specifically spelled out how and where roadside sales may take place in 1982. Harford's law -- which Mr. DeGrange's proposal resembles -- allows mobile vendors in business districts but requires them to prove they can comply with other restrictions before they receive a permit.

To ensure compliance, inspectors sweep Harford at least every three weeks, said Pat Barth, Harford's zoning enforcement supervisor.

Anne Arundel officials say the county code is silent on roadside vendors.

Mr. DeGrange said he does not want to put Mr. Fernandez or anyone else out of business, but he does want to "put everything on a level plain."

Florists who operate year round must provide parking and comply with county zoning laws, he said. Meanwhile, he said, roadside flower stands are free to pop up along the highway edges on major holiday weekends, creating traffic hazards and siphoning off garden shops' profits.

That, Mr. DeGrange said, is unfair -- a sentiment that members of the Anne Arundel County Trade Council and several other county business groups echoed at a recent council hearing.

"It's not a level playing field," Mr. Fernandez agreed last week. "It can't possibly be. I sell one product. Live crabs. You can't expect me to do all the things [restaurants] are doing. But they can certainly do what I'm doing."

Mr. Fernandez is not alone in his opposition. Paul T. McHenry, the president of the Southern Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce, which represents many farmers and watermen, said DeGrange's proposal is "over the line of unnecessary government."

Not only does the southern half of Anne Arundel have almost no commercial zoning, and hence no place for mobile vendors, Mr. McHenry said, but the proposed law "doesn't fit us."

"We're country territory. Our watermen and farmers have always sold this way."

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