Correction to This Article
The article misspelled the last name of Neil J. Pedersen, Maryland's state highway administrator.

Controversy Threatens Popular Bethesda, Md., Farm Market

By Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 29, 2009

They come for the giant purple heirloom tomatoes, for the homegrown Shiro plums, the peaches and the corn. Nestled in a shady patch on the side of River Road in Bethesda, the Country Thyme Farm Market has been a destination for soccer moms, commuters and Montgomery County foodies for 10 years.

Little did these shoppers know they were in the clutches of a "safety hazard" that entire time.

"It doesn't present a safe environment for them," said Kellie Boulware, spokeswoman for the Maryland State Highway Administration, explaining why the agency has given the fruit stand until Wednesday to relocate. "It's a very heavily traveled corridor."

Why did the state suddenly decide to crack down on Country Thyme after a decade of accident-free operation? The answer can be traced to one of the county's less-revered institutions: Robin Ficker.

Widely known for his decades-long lobbying for anti-tax laws known as "Ficker amendments," his heckling of opposing players at Washington Bullets basketball games in the 1990s and his run-ins with the state bar over sloppy legal work, Ficker, a Bethesda lawyer and former state delegate, has proved time and again that he can turn anything -- even fresh produce -- into the seed of a countywide kerfuffle.

This latest controversy began when a complaint about "dumping" led state highway officials to Ficker's son Rob's food stand a few miles up River Road, near Carderock Springs Drive. Rob Ficker, 31, who had been at the location for more than three years, had amassed a pile of mulch, which he planned to use as bedding around his stand, he said. The state didn't care much about the mulch, but once officials realized Ficker's stand had been using state property, they ordered him to find a new location.

He did. But his father, never one to let an order go unquestioned, was not about to leave the issue there.

Robin Ficker, 66, tipped the state to another stand on River Road, asking why it should be allowed to stay open if his son's stand was ousted, highway officials said. Again, the state investigators rolled into action, demanding that Country Thyme, which sits on a patch of roadside just outside the Kenwood Golf and Country Club, relocate.

Country Thyme patrons say Ficker is being petty.

"It sounds like he's a mean guy," said Donna Damico, a nurse from Takoma Park, while buying some peaches. "It sounds like he needs to take some Prozac and calm down. What does he care" if Country Thyme stays open?

State Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery) -- who, along with some local delegates, has tried to intervene with the highway administration on behalf of Country Thyme -- summed up Ficker's reputation more diplomatically.

"He's very adept at bringing the limelight to issues he's interested in, and this is a good example of that," said Frosh, who agrees with Ficker that the state should let the food stands be. "Nobody's wrong 100 percent of the time."

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