The appearance of roadside crab vendors along Ritchie Highway is as familiar a sign of summer as Friday-night backups at the Bay Bridge toll plaza.
But the itinerant merchants, who until now have been free to set up shop almost anywhere they please, may be subject to a bit more scrutiny by local authorities.
Dels. Joan Cadden, Mary Ann Love and Janet Greenip have sponsored a bill that would allow counties to regulate mobile seafood vendors, a function that is currently reserved for the state and municipalities. The bill is expected to win approval in the House of Delegates this morning and will move on to the Senate.
Passing the bill will clear the way for County Councilman James E. "Ed" DeGrange Sr. to introduce his own legislation to license and regulate vendors along Ritchie Highway, the county's main commercial artery.
Mr. DeGrange said he has received numerous complaints from established business owners -- some of them seafood merchants -- that the vendors are not subject to the same regulations as the store owners, which puts the latter at a competitive disadvantage.
"You'll see it all the way from Brooklyn to Annapolis if you travel Route 2," Mr. DeGrange said. "My understanding is they don't come under the county's jurisdiction at all."
Mr. DeGrange, who owns DeGrange Lumber Co. in Glen Burnie, said he has had his own run-ins with roadside vendors. "We've even had them pull up on our parking lot and sell tools out of their trunks," he said.
Although his legislation would cover all vendors, such as those selling flowers and plants, furniture or rugs, it is the seafood vendors that have caused particular concern. While they are subject to state health regulations, enforcement is spotty since the vendors operate mostly on weekends, Mr. DeGrange said.
Those who operate established seafood businesses say that the vendors don't adhere to the same sanitary standards they do; they don't have to have the triple sinks, the expensive refrigeration equipment or the hot running water that seafood markets must have. Mobile vendors also have less overhead and contribute less in taxes and jobs to the community, store owners argue.
"This is something we've been trying to fight for 20 years," said Richard E. Fifer, owner of Anne Arundel Seafood at Mountain and Solley roads in Pasadena. "Definitely they should be stopped. No question about it. A lot of it's done on private property and on the highways, and they shouldn't even be there.
"They're just not adhering to any of the Health Department regulations at all, and the state just sits by and lets them do it," he said.
"We're at a disadvantage. We're here year-round. We have a lot of overhead," said Thomas Jockel, general manager of Annapolis Seafood Market in Annapolis.
"Basically, the roadside vendor is only there when the supply is high or he can get a lot of money for his product. We provide jobs to the community. We pay taxes.
"How much of their income is getting reported? How many jobs are they providing?"
Mr. DeGrange said that regulating the vendors could indeed bring in more tax revenue. "There's no sales tax being paid as far as I'm aware," he said. "We're getting nothing [from the vendors]. They're operating a free business."
The Glen Burnie Democrat said he has sent drafts of his bill to area chambers of commerce for comment and hopes to introduce it in May. The bill would require vendors to secure written permission from the property owner to receive a license. The vendor also could only operate in an area zoned for retail sales.
Mr. DeGrange said he is not trying to drive the vendors out of business, but just to rein them in a bit. "If they meet all the requirements of zoning and licensing, then it's fine," he said.