A zoning battle between two seafood establishments on Ritchie Highway is pitting former fishing colleagues and their ffresh crabs against each other.
Owners of Reys seafood establishment, a small crab shack, are defending their right to run their business on a residentially zoned property. The county's Office of Planning and Zoning granted them the right to the "non-comforming zoning use" in February.
Opposing their right to exist in that location is the owner of Joe's Seafood, located a few hundred feet south on the same side of Ritchie Highway in Severna Park. Joe's Seafood, part of a larger shopping center, also sells live crabs, along with steamed crabs, shrimp and other seafood.
The owner of Joe's Seafood, Joe Morotti Sr., is challenging the zoning granted to the owner of Reys, Rob Yesker Sr. A public hearing on the issue is scheduled for 2 p.m. Wednesday at the Arundel Center in Annapolis.
Rob Yesker Jr. says he and Mr. Morotti's son used to be good friends. "Before all this, me and Joe [Morotti Jr.] worked out of the same marina. It was coincidence we ended up on opposite corners. But we used to borrow bags and seasoning from each other even after we were both here. There was no trouble."
The county rezoned the area in 1973. Four years ago, the county zoning office asked the Yeskers to justify their commercial use by proving the business had existed prior to the comprehensive re-zoning.
The county ruled this year that the business has been there since before May 6, 1973, when the property was rezoned from commercial use to residential.
The Office of Planning and Zoning ruled in February in favor of the Yeskers. County residents had 30 days to appeal the decision.
Mr. Morotti Sr., who also owns Jo Lee's Used Cars Inc., appealed.
Harry Blumenthal, an attorney representing Mr. Morotti, said his client believes, based on what people have told him, that the Yeskers are not entitled to be recognized as a legal nonconforming use, that the business has not, in fact, existed as long as the Yeskers assert it has.
"Whether you like the people has nothing to do with it," Mr. Blumenthal said. "As a matter of fact in law, they are there legally or they are not."
He said testimony shows the business was not in continuous use, as the law requires for the nonconforming use.
The Yeskers -- father Rob Sr. and sons Rob Jr. and Joe -- who took over management of Reys in 1979 and bought the property last year, say their establishment has existed since the 1920s in one form or another. First it was a produce stand, then a flower stand, then a produce stand again, and finally a crab vendor.
Rob Yesker Jr. expressed bitterness over the zoning challenge.
"[Mr. Morotti's] concern is that his son owns the seafood place," charged Mr. Yesker. "If we were a toxic waste dump, he would have no problem with us. He just wants us out to eliminate competition."
Mr. Blumenthal said: "It happens that Mr. Morotti's property is also a seafood establishment. I assume they are competitors. But as far as I'm concerned, that means nothing. It's up to the Board of Appeals to decide."
When the Yeskers learned they could be put out of business, they asked their customers to sign a petition supporting them. "We had thousands of names," said Mr. Yesker Jr.
The Yesker family also insists their business is not cutting into Joe Morotti's business. "He sells all kinds of seafood and cooked crabs," said Mr. Yesker Jr. "We sell just live crabs."