Roadside debate simmers Controversy: Some roadside vendors say Anne Arundel's $250 permit fee is unfair. But the county says the businesses need to be regulated.

July 13, 1998|By Kirsten Scharnberg | Kirsten Scharnberg,SUN STAFF

Talk to some Anne Arundel old-timers, and they'll tell you the character of their once mostly rural county has long been typified by the rustic, side-of-the-road stands where vendors hustle everything from crafts to cucumbers to soft-shell crabs.

But in recent years, a new county law requiring these small-time merchants to get $250 vending permits is putting some of them out of business, while others who refuse to comply risk $500 fines.

Some roadside vendors are outraged, claiming they are being penalized for having a seasonal hobby that makes them a few extra bucks for summer golfing. Some are nostalgic for the laid-back county of their youth. And some are genuinely worried, saying they count on the money to supplement their meager Social Security checks.

"I need this job," 69-year-old Jim Teague said simply.

Teague prides himself on never asking anyone for anything.

All his life, the Pasadena man has worked -- up to a dozen hours a day, until he was too tired to do anything but fall into bed and start over again the next morning.

He defines himself by a lifetime of manual labor, by getting his hands dirty in the course of duty, by knowing what it means to earn a weekly paycheck. He scoffs at the notion of welfare or handouts or freebies.

"Never asked for a thing in my life," he'll say to anyone who will listen. "Not once. And I'm not about to start now. But it's getting harder and harder to live by that rule, I'll tell you that."

Today, the proud, heavy-set man is retired. His health has gone from good to bad to worse. His $700-a-month Social Security check is all but eaten by the cost of medication for his chronic diabetes.

"There's just never enough money," he said, sitting at the kitchen table in a stained T-shirt, hands folded in front of him.

Teague and his neighbor, Vernon Lohrmann Sr., came up with a plan many years ago. They would make wishing wells and birdhouses and Santa Claus lawn ornaments to sell along Ritchie Highway to make a few extra bucks. In a good year, the retirees pull in about $2,000 selling their goods around the holidays.

"Split that in half, take out the $700 you spent on supplies, pay taxes on it and it doesn't leave too much," Lohrmann said. "It sure doesn't leave enough that it pays for a $250 license each year. Come on. We're just supplementing our Social Security checks with this. It's not like we're making $30,000 a year."

Get the two going, and they'll tell you at length how overpriced the county's vending permit is:

"Just ridiculous."

"Crazy."

"Going too far."

"I can't let it go," Lohrmann said. "It's just sticking in my craw so darn much."

His wife, Rose, rolled her eyes. "You're telling me," she said under her breath.

"Not to sound like too much of an old-timer," Lohrmann went on, "but I've paid taxes here all my life. And what have I gotten back from the county? Nothing. Now they want me to pay them $250 to sell some whirligigs I made in my garage?"

Teague doesn't have an extra $250 lying around for this year's permit, but he desperately needs the several hundred dollars he earns each year from selling his birdhouses. But he is not going to ask the government for money to help him survive.

"I'm not going to beg for a few dollars from anyone," Teague said, the defiant look back on his weathered face. "I don't know why it can't be that if you're over 65 and aren't making more than a few thousand dollars from selling things you've made at home that they don't waive this $250 fee.

"Either that or maybe when you get about 65 or 70 the county should just give you a little black pill and get it over with."

Reason for fees

The county began requiring the $250 licenses in 1995 after garden shop and seafood restaurant owners said hundreds of roadside vendors -- especially along Ritchie Highway, which cuts through the heart of the county -- were taking money out of their pockets.

Many of those vendors weren't from the county, but were crabbers from the Eastern Shore who brought their catches to Anne Arundel to avoid the permit requirements in their home counties.

"They weren't supporting the county or the communities in any way, shape or form," said James "Ed" DeGrange, the county councilman who first proposed permit requirements. "They were just coming here, setting up, stealing business from our tax-paying locals and leaving with their profits."

Despite much local controversy, the council approved the $250 permits. The county has no estimate on how many vendors have gone out of business since then.

"There's no way to tell because the stands were never regulated before," said Anne Hatcher, the chief of licensing for Anne Arundel County. "So there are no figures to compare them to."

But lifetime county residents like Lohrmann and Teague say they can see the difference as they drive along county roads.

"This county sure doesn't have the same feel it once did," Lohrmann said. "Makes you sad to see."

"Almost makes you want to leave," said Teague.

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