Leggett Moves to Fell Rule on Tree Sales

Obscure Regulation's Origin Is a Montgomery Mystery

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 9, 2008; Page B01

It has been the riddle without an answer: Why can't you legally buy a Christmas tree in Montgomery County before Dec. 5?

Having found no good explanation, County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) today will introduce legislation to overturn the prohibition, which appears to be more than 30 years old and last week caused a Bethesda church's charity tree sale to be shut down for several days.

Officials have researched the origin of the restriction -- embedded in county zoning laws -- and have traced it to the late 1960s or early 1970s. But they have found nothing that indicates why it's there. Reporters working independently also have failed to turn up anything except speculation from a diverse collection of former County Council members, local historians, residents and alert newspaper readers.

Some say the ordinance was created to address fire concerns about trees growing old and dry. But Montgomery County Fire and Rescue spokesman Pete Piringer said that although the department encourages people to keep a close eye on their Christmas trees, it is not responsible for the creation of this particular regulation.

Others, including Leggett spokesman Patrick Lacefield, said the regulation might have been created to address concerns from neighborhoods where the tree lots temporarily set up for business. (He also points out that in recent years, only one person has been cited, and no one has been hit with the restriction's $500 fine.)

No matter the reason, state agricultural officials said Montgomery appears to be among the few jurisdictions that name specific dates on which Christmas trees can be sold. (It should be noted that Rockville has a law that says that vendors may not sell Christmas trees until the fourth Friday in November, and city attorneys are researching the origin of that law, a city spokeswoman said).

Sidney Kramer, a former Montgomery executive (1986-90) who also served on the council (1970-74), said he had no recollection of the prohibition ever coming before the council. Ditto Esther P. Gelman, who served on the council between 1974 and 1986.

"I have never heard about this ban," Gelman said. "I have no idea why it would have come into being. Was someone trying to sell Christmas trees in July?"

Added Kramer: "If people want to buy a Christmas tree in July or August, then they should have that right."

Those familiar with the inner workings of Montgomery government said that the law would have had to have been approved by the council but note it is possible that the ban was established before the county moved to its current form of governance and might not have required council approval.

But there's at least one person out there who was well aware of the restriction regarding tree sales in Montgomery, and that person called officials to report that the folks at North Bethesda United Methodist Church were selling trees almost a week before they were allowed to do so.

A county inspector shut down the church sales Dec. 2, but officials later allowed trees to be sold a day early, Dec. 4.

The council has the power to rescind the sales ban, but it will take time. After the zoning amendment is introduced today, a public hearing will be set, probably for early February. A 30-day notice of the proposed change will be published. After the hearing, the measure will be referred to a council committee, which will make a recommendation on whether it should be approved. It will then return to the full council for a vote.

Got all that? Maybe it will be done in time for next Christmas.

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