Early Christmas Tree Sales? Heavens, No.

Angelo Serkedakis, left, who runs the tree lot for North Bethesda United Methodist Church, and Nick Tatakis put up trees at the church on Old Georgetown Road. Montgomery County shut down the lot for selling trees before Dec. 5.
Angelo Serkedakis, left, who runs the tree lot for North Bethesda United Methodist Church, and Nick Tatakis put up trees at the church on Old Georgetown Road. Montgomery County shut down the lot for selling trees before Dec. 5. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
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By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 5, 2008

And on the third day, Pastor Debbie Scott got busted.

For six years, North Bethesda United Methodist Church has operated a Christmas tree lot on its grounds at Lone Oak Drive and Old Georgetown Road. And for six years, it opened right after Thanksgiving. The money raised helped fund missions and other church programs, including a medical clinic in Tanzania.

But last week, somebody -- county officials aren't saying who -- dropped a dime.

Turns out the churchgoing folks at North Bethesda have been breaking the law. According to county code, for more than 30 years it's been illegal to sell a Christmas tree in Montgomery County before Dec. 5. Those caught taking cash, credit cards or checks for a tree before then can be fined $500.

The church opened its lot Nov. 29. Three days later, the county inspector came calling.

Uh, hello, Mr. Grinch?

After noting that banners along a fence that the church had hung to advertise the trees were also in violation of a county code because they were too big, the inspector shut the operation down. But, perhaps in the spirit of the holidays, he didn't fine the church.

County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) said yesterday through a spokesman that he had no idea such a ban existed and that the law should be repealed. The spokesman, Patrick Lacefield, said officials could not determine why the law was enacted or even when, only that it was sometime in the late 1960s or early '70s. He speculated that "it may have had something to do with commercial activity in a residential area."

County Council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), whose district includes the offending church, was shocked to learn that such a law existed.

"My wife has urged me to amend this law,'' Berliner said, adding with a chuckle: "This is Montgomery County as its finest. I'm sure there's a politically correct reason why this is so, and we will be investigating."

Saying, "we need more Christmas spirit," Berliner said he intends to change the law unless there is a compelling case for keeping it in place.

Montgomery seems to be alone in its tree sale ban. There are no such restrictions in the District or Howard or Prince George's counties. Fairfax County's zoning law limits the length of time a tree lot can operate to 21 days, but does not specify when vendors can start selling trees, a spokeswoman said.

"It's ludicrous,'' said Scott, who just happens to be allergic to all pine trees, Christmas variety or not. "Most of us know as soon as the Halloween stuff is out of the stores, the Christmas decorations move in."

She asked county officials why the law existed. And while everyone she talked to agreed that it was ridiculous, no one could tell her exactly why it was on the books.

Scott pointed out that the law wasn't being enforced uniformly. In fact, she told county officials, she knew of several lots that were selling trees despite the ban. County officials invited her to share the names, but Scott refused to take the bait.

Never in her years of training for the ministry had she run into something quite so bizarre, she said.

"They didn't teach me this in seminary," she said. "Trust me, I did not become a zoning specialist until I became a resident of Montgomery County."

Scott wasn't the only one to encounter the tree ban this week.

Lou Cantolupo, 37, set out to buy his Christmas tree Tuesday. He stopped at a lot on Wisconsin Avenue, not far from his house in Tenleytown. But alas, he had crossed the District-Maryland line. A sign on the fence said that, by county decree, he couldn't buy a tree until today.

"It was ridiculous," said the molecular biologist, who works in business development. He said he found the idea so preposterous he called the County Council to see whether it was true. He was told it was.

For folks at North Bethesda United Methodist Church, there was some good news yesterday afternoon. A county official called and said they could start selling again.

Scott, decked out in a red sweater adorned in poinsettia plants, stood in the lot and grinned: "We're legal at last -- now that's the news."

And to all, a good night.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company