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Near U.S. Open, Montgomery tries to put the squeeze on lemonade stands

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Lemonade stands are supposed to come with lessons — about camaraderie, teamwork, entre­pre­neur­ship.

Or, if you are in an elegant swath of Montgomery County, outside the gates of Congressional Country Club and the U.S. Open, the all-American rite of passage might instead become a master class in government overreach and how officials can score some truly atrocious press.

But is there any extra credit for the complete backpedal?

First, the basics: On Thursday, the first day of the Open, a cameraman from WUSA (Channel 9) captured a county inspector attempting to shut down a roadside stand manned by a half-dozen adorable children. They didn’t have a vendor’s permit, the inspector informed the moms. The result? A $500 ticket.

By the time Rory McIlroy ended opening day at the top of the leader board, the county had backed down, canceled the fine and greenlighted the stand a few dozen feet away, down a side street. But the story of the original fine snowballed across the Web and airwaves Friday, eliciting outrage and amusement.

“Waterboard them!!!” wrote one Web commenter of the kids, who had planned to give half the proceeds to the fight against pediatric cancer.

“I just think the whole thing was kind of insane that they made such a big deal about a small problem,” said Isabella, 13, a big sister standing near Persimmon Tree Road and Country Club Drive in Bethesda on Friday, “just watching the littles” as they resumed hawking bottles of natural cranberry lemonade in the afternoon sun. “In the first place, I don’t know how a 10-year-old could get a permit.”

Montgomery officials were chastened but unapologetic.

“It wasn’t that we were the big hand of county government trying to come down and squash anything. It was, we’re trying to find a solution to a problem,” said Jennifer Hughes, acting director for Montgomery’s Department of Permitting Services. “We were attempting to do what government is charged with doing, which is protecting communities and protecting the safety of people.”

Not that anyone else was seeing it that way. The vitriol, Hughes said, kept pouring into county e-mail boxes, with officials “being accused of being un-American, squelching children’s entrepreneurial spirit, just plain old, ‘You suck!’ ”

Hughes said the goal of county policy is to protect the suburban neighborhood from becoming a humming, street-side marketplace of illegal vendors like you might see outside another sports venue that lures hundreds of thousands of spectators. The vendor laws “don’t distinguish whether it’s little kids selling lemonade or if it’s some adults doing it for profit,” she said.

Of course, the public does distinguish between those things, even if the operation was not your grandfather’s Mayberry lemonade stand. There was a tent for shade, five plastic coolers, and a couple of industrial steel ones packed with ice and cans of Coke and Diet Coke. For the fundraiser, the kids’ parents had also secured cases of bottled lemonade wholesale from the Bethesda-based company Honest Tea. “Cold Drinks $2.00” read the paper sign.

And the neighbors being protected tend not to be the type of folks who take lightly to being told what to do.

Norman Augustine, former head of Lockheed Martin and the Red Cross, had helped his grandchildren build the wooden wagon-top stand sitting at the front of the tent, complete with a hand-drawn snowman poster, and he was the one who ended up with the nullified $500 fine. David Marriott, a member of the family behind the Bethesda-based hotel chain, and his wife, Carrie, were among the other adults who helped organize the renegade stand.

“You’re at the crime scene,” said Rene Augustine, a mom and retired lawyer.

“We stuck to our guns,” added Carrie Marriott.

The lesson for the kids?

“When something’s right, you stand up for your beliefs,” Carrie Marriott said. “That’s what America’s about. It’s about free enterprise. It’s about taking an idea, making it happen and making it successful.”

David Marriott emphasized how happy he was that the county decided to let things slide. A county official had actually come by Thursday night and bought a couple of drinks, letting them keep the change.

“Hooligans!” exclaimed one passerby Friday, momentarily confusing kids whose sarcasm detectors might have been a little rusty after all the talk of government enforcement.

After all the hubbub, the kids had decided that 100 percent of their take should go to the charity, Just Tryan It, which is running a kids’ triathlon Sunday in Bethesda.

“I learned that kids with cancer need the money way more than we do,” said Christian, 10.

Jack, 7, was focused on location, location and their original higher-traffic spot a chip shot away, which is now off-limits.

“Before, we could like run over there and jump up and down,” Jack said. “Now we can just stand here going, ‘Cold Drinks! Cold Drinks!’ It’s a lot more successful when everybody’s by the corner.”

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