The county administration last week began what may be the start of acrackdown on street vendors. It has ordered a Columbia peddler to stop selling plants on a Columbia street.
On Monday, the county law office wrote Owen Brown resident Stephen Siegle, 41, telling him to "cease and desist" or face a lawsuit. Siegle has been conducting a brisk business since June on Cradlerock Way near Mossy Brink Court in the Columbia village of Owen Brown.
Siegle is the only peddler County Executive Charles I. Ecker's administration has threatened with a suit. But other peddlers who sell everything from rugs to snow cones to hot dogs will also be told to move on if they, like Siegle, return to the same location each day andlinger to peddle their wares, said County Attorney F. Todd Taylor Jr.
"We don't want to deny anyone the opportunity to make money," Ecker said, "we just want them to do it within the law -- within certain parameters."
Siegle, 41, thinks he has been living within the law since he first began selling plants and containers in front of the Oakland Mills shopping center in April. He moved to the Cradlerock location in June.
"Why did they wait four months to come up with this?" Siegle said of the government's plans to keep him on the move. "If I've been trespassing or been illegal all this time, why didn't they enforce the law before now? Why didn't they just come arrest me andtake me to jail? "
Consumer Affairs Director Stephen Hannan said his office had received six or eight calls about Siegle, but said none were "merchandise complaints." If they had been, the consumer affairs office would have grounds to examine Siegle's license, Hannan said.
What most people objected to, Hannan said, was that Siegle was operating in a residential neighborhood. "I can understand their feelings," Hannan said. "It's a fairly quiet residential neighborhood, andhe sells a lot of plants."
County Councilwoman Shane Pendergrass,D-1st, who represents the Owen Brown neighborhood, supported the administration decision. "Everybody in the community is upset" by Siegle's presence, she said.
Pendergrass said nearby businesses have complained that Siegle is undercutting them, because he doesn't have to pay overhead like they do. "The village board has been getting a tremendous amount of heat" from residents and business owners, Pendergrass said.
The area that Siegle has been working is about two blocks from the village center.
Owen Brown village board Chairman Jay Stearman told county officials in a Sept. 9 letter that the village office has received more calls -- all complaints -- about Siegle "than any other issue in the staff's memory."
Potential buyers "hinder thesmooth flow of traffic" on Cradlerock Way, and "the grass in the area where the plants and trees are displayed has been destroyed," Stearman said. Also, "trash, either from the peddler himself or from his customers, is often allowed to accumulate in the surrounding area," hesaid.
Stearman called Siegle's street sales "totally inappropriate," saying the village board "is unanimous in its support of the residents' request that the peddler not be permitted to continue selling on Cradlerock Way."
Siegle refuses to be intimidated. "My father started as a peddler in New York after he came here from Russia," Siegle said. "I'm not gonna lay down for them. I've fought bigger battlesthan this. The season is almost over, and if I let them win this, next year will be impossible."
Siegle said he was a successful businessman until 1986, when he started having blackouts that led to threeautomobile accidents in 10 days. His driver's license was revoked and by 1988, he had become "poverty stricken," he said.
A little more than a year and a half ago, Siegle was picked up while hitchhiking by Irvin Hatfield. From that day, things have begun to turn around, he said.
During the ride, the two began talking about some of Siegle's ideas. And by the end of the ride, they had formed a partnership.Siegle would get a peddler's license and sell tropical plants, bonsai trees and containers. Hatfield, 51, would provide transportation and look after the plants. "If I didn't have him, I couldn't go anywhere," Siegle said.
Hatfield, who says he is disabled as a result of a truck accident, is a native of Woodbine. Siegle is a New York City native who now lives in the Greenleaf section of Owen Brown.
He said he moved his cart from Oakland Mills shopping center to CradlerockWay so he could see his daughter more often. Siegle is divorced, andhis daughter lives with her mother in an adjacent neighborhood. Siegle kept coming back, he said, because sales on Cradlerock were "10 times better" than in Oakland Mills.
But so was the harassment. Siegle said some Woodlake residents complained so loudly and so often about him and that two police officers a day have dropped in on him for the past two months. Employees from the county zoning office have also come by to question his activities, he said.