Feud crops up between produce stands One faces other's zoning challenge

September 03, 1992|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

It sounds simple enough: Grow or buy a truckload of fresh summer fruits and vegetables, find a busy corner and sell the produce to anyone who stops by.

In the Green Spring Valley, however, competition between two neighboring produce stands has turned into a nasty feud that might result in the eviction of a 48-year-old Eastern Shore woman from a roadside stand she has operated for 16 years.

Several times each week, Joan McMahon trucks fresh fruits and vegetables from her fields near Pocomoke City and sells them Tuesday through Sunday from her popular spot on a wooded corner at Hillside Road and Greenspring Avenue in Baltimore County.

She has the landowner's permission to be there, but she has spent much of this summer with lawyers, surveyors and county officials, fighting a zoning challenge that threatens to oust her.

"I'm worried to death over this; I really am," she said.

More than 60 loyal customers have written letters supporting her. They praise the quality of her produce, her knowledge and friendliness, and her cleanup efforts at a corner that had been a dumping ground for junked cars and dead dogs.

Hundreds more have signed her petitions or dropped money into a jar beside her tomatoes to help with her legal expenses.

The zoning challenge against Joan's Produce was filed by Joel Koman, 26, of Owings Mills. He operates Stevenson Village Produce from a stand in the parking lot of the Stevenson Shopping Center, 1 1/2 miles west of Mrs. McMahon's stand.

"All I want is for it [Joan's Produce] to be legal," he said. "I run a legitimate business here, and I've done things by the book. If somebody is going to be in business down the street, they should obtain the [permits] I have had to."

There is more to this dispute than legalities. Mr. Koman says the "bad blood" between the two stands began even before he took over his stand four or five years ago from its former owner, whom he would not identify.

Mr. Koman was a student then, working summers at the stand.

"I don't know what started it," he said. But "I was here when she [Mrs. McMahon] drove by and started cussing at him [the former owner], and screaming at him," he said. "He said, 'You're not a lady. Get out of here.' You should have heard the things she said."

Mrs. McMahon says she never quarreled with the former owner, only with Mr. Koman. She accuses Mr. Koman, or someone working for him, of harassment -- shouting obscenities and attempting to destroy a cable gate she used to secure her corner lot. Once, she said, someone erected signs on her corner on her day off, telling customers she had moved to the Stevenson Village Shopping Center.

"It's pretty sad, you know. There's enough for everybody," Mrs. McMahon said.

Mr. Koman called her accusations "baloney. . . . It's attacking my pTC character, and it's false. It's ridiculous."

Whatever the truth about the origins of the feud, the real threat to Joan's Produce is the zoning dispute, which began last year with a complaint to county officials that Mrs. McMahon was improperly operating a retail business in a rural conservation (RC-2) zone.

"I did not call the zoning board on her," Mr. Koman said. County zoning officials said that is true -- the initial complaint was filed by his mother, Claire Koman.

Derek Propalis, the zoning inspector in the case, said Mrs. McMahon was found to be in violation and that she agreed to shut down after her season ended last November.

During the winter and spring, however, the County Council -- in an effort to ease small farmers' access to the metropolitan market -- passed new legislation allowing farm stands to operate in rural conservation zones if they meet certain conditions.

Mrs. McMahon hired an attorney and set about trying to meet those conditions. County officials were finally satisfied and issued her a conditional use permit. The property was posted in June, and if no one challenged the permit within 30 days, a permanent use permit would have been issued, allowing her to continue selling from her corner.

On the 29th day, Mr. Koman acknowledged, he filed a challenge.

"I saw the [zoning notice] there . . . and I drive by and she's screaming at me. So I thought, fine, be like that. I will contest this zoning," he said.

Mrs. McMahon then had to pay a $200 fee and seek a hearing.

The biggest roadblock to her winning a use permit and remaining at Hillside and Greenspring now appears to be a clause in the County Council's farm-stand law requiring produce merchants in rural conservation zones to grow at least 50 percent of the food they sell. All of it must be Maryland-grown.

Mr. Koman's stand is not bound by the same restrictions because it is in a commercial zone. He is not a farmer, and in addition to local produce, he sells citrus fruit and New Zealand kiwis. He closed up Sept. 1 and returned to work for a business that sells fund-raising services to schools.

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