Montgomery Officials Aim for 'More Flexibility' for Roadside Vendors

Country Thyme in Bethesda has been battling to stay at its roadside location on state property. State officials say it poses a traffic hazard.
Country Thyme in Bethesda has been battling to stay at its roadside location on state property. State officials say it poses a traffic hazard. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
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By Jonathan Mummolo Dan Morse
Sunday, August 16, 2009

Seeking to rescue a popular Bethesda farm stand, Montgomery County officials said they will push Maryland lawmakers to allow such stands to set up on state roadsides, potentially granting fruit vendors the same exception seafood stands currently enjoy.

State Highway Administration officials last month ordered Country Thyme Farm Market on River Road to move from its location near Kenwood Golf and Country Club because the stand, which has operated for 10 years, was on state property without permission and posed a traffic hazard.

The stand's patrons were angered, saying that a law permitting sales of seafood but not vegetables created an unfair double standard. County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) plans to pursue a change to the law, spokesman Patrick Lacefield said.

"We are going to be going to the legislature next year to try to get a little more flexibility for folks who are selling perishables in season . . . along the side of state roads," Lacefield said. "It's in everybody's interest to make sure that first, consistent with traffic safety, that folks who grow fruits and vegetables and want to market them to the public have opportunities to do that. . . . I think we'd all be healthier if we ate more fruits and vegetables."

The highway agency focused on Country Thyme after requiring the relocation of another stand on River Road, this one operated by the son of former state delegate and anti-tax activist Robin Ficker, who had complained to the state that his son was being singled out, officials said.

But Country Thyme has remained open while seeking an injunction against the state's closing order in Montgomery County Circuit Court. The stand's attorney, Eric H. Singer, was in court on the matter Thursday.

Jonathan Sadd, the stand's owner, and the state differ on the meaning of what happened at the courthouse.

He thought an agreement had been reached for Country Thyme to finish out its season through October -- the state, he believed, would refrain from seeking removal of the stand during that time.

"I'm very happy about it," Sadd said Thursday. "It gives me time to focus on what I need to be focusing on right now."

But he might have rejoiced prematurely, because the state denies having agreed to let the vendor finish out his season. A recording of the court session indicates that the state's lawyer left open the possibility of shutting down the business at some point.

"We have no present intention of taking any enforcement action" against the stand, assistant attorney general Kenneth P. Barnhart told Judge John W. Debelius III.

State highway spokesman David Buck said Friday that officials hope the matter will be resolved in the coming days. "When this is all said and done . . . they're going to be permanently removed from the location," he said.

The highway agency has said all along that safety is its top priority, but no one has asked police to remove Country Thyme for trespassing. Asked why, Buck said calling police would be an "absolute last resort. We don't want to heavy-hand anything here. . . . We want to work with these people to [find] an amicable solution."

Staff writer Michael Laris contributed to this report.

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