Trouble looming for road vendors Balto. Co. police plan crackdown on illegal sales at flower stands

April 30, 1996|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Roadside flower vendors will have some unwelcome business on Mother's Day weekend -- police business -- in a Baltimore County crackdown on illegal sales.

Spurred to action by complaints from a more traditional merchant, the county plans to use zoning inspectors and police officers to move or issue citations to illegal peddlers beginning Friday, May 10, two days before Mother's Day.

At stake locally are tens of thousands of dollars in sales -- a share of the Mother's Day demand for flowers that the national Florists Transworld Delivery (FTD), based in Southfield, Mich., estimated at $143 million last year, including 105 million roses sold.

Flower shops accounted for 47 percent of those sales, with another 30 percent split between garden centers and supermarkets -- FTD figures that left 23 percent of sales unaccounted for.

"I did a survey four years ago at Easter and counted 132 street vendors," said Bob Tilford Jr., owner of the four-store Forthuber's Flowers chain. He was certain there are more street vendors now.

"They probably make $1,000 to $3,000 per corner," said James Coffman, a grower whose family sells potted flowers from a building on Harford Road in Cub Hill and who has pushed for county enforcement since Easter.

"The impact that it has on retail florists is enormous," Mr. Tilford said.

On the other side of the issue is Robert S. Niehaus who, with his brother, Richard D. Niehaus Jr., runs most of the regularly manned weekend stands around the county. Their business, Town and Country Flowers, operates out of a warehouse in the 7500 block of Belair Road. He defended his roadside trade as a legal, taxpaying concern as legitimate as a traditional florist shop.

"We've been in business 25 years," he said, adding that his trade doesn't hurt other florists and is itself suffering from competition from "every food store and gas station."

On holidays, Mr. Niehaus complained, "everybody and his brother" is out selling flowers. He said he has a huckster's license for his locations and that county law allows flowers sales without a license.

Enforcement is tricky

Officials and county laws say, however, that huckster licenses require vendors to keep moving, like ice cream trucks, and that operating on public land, including a highway right of way, is illegal.

Enforcement can be tricky, because county zoning regulations allow "temporary and occasional" cut-flower sales for up to 120 days per year if the vendor occupies less than 200 square feet and has obtained a county use permit to operate on private, commercially zoned land.

County police are often confused by vendors who move off the roadway to private property when challenged, or display photocopies of official-looking licenses, police and zoning officials said.

On Friday, a man who would identify himself only as "Frank" manned one of the Niehaus locations at Charles Street and Bellona Avenue just south of the Beltway. The vendor, who said he had no license in his possession, presided over 10 large buckets of flowers arrayed on the paved roadway.

Mr. Niehaus said he was "quite surprised" to hear that the man was in the right of way, even though a steep hill on that corner would make it difficult to be anywhere else. Frank said he has never been hassled by the police or county inspectors.

"We've been there from time immemorial," Richard Niehaus said. "It's never been an issue."

But that appears likely to change.

Mother's Day blitz set

Arnold Jablon, county director of Permits and Development Management, is gearing up for a May 10-11 blitz against illegal roadside vendors. "I am going to enforce the law for Mother's Day weekend," he declared at a meeting with police and other Ruppersberger administration officials Thursday. He promised to put illegal vendors out of business.

Not a top priority

He said he would order two of his weekday inspectors to work that Friday night and Saturday, and will distribute information to all county police precincts to acquaint patrol officers with the law.

Acknowledging that illegal flower sales are not a top priority in most police officers' minds, Mr. Jablon said he doesn't want to hinder their crime-fighting duties.

"I don't want to tie police officers up for three hours doing paperwork," Mr. Jablon told White Marsh-Parkville Capt. John A. Campbell and Col. Johnny Whitehead, the chief of patrol operations.

Mr. Jablon said he wants police offices to take names and addresses from vendors -- information that could be used to issue $200-a-day zoning citations for those operating illegally -- and to order those vendors to leave.

If the vendors don't move, he said, officers would "use their own discretion" about what action to take. That could range from issuing a $45 ticket to making an arrest.

Pub Date: 4/30/96

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