County Council member Ronald V. Russell (D-Mitchellville) is not working with council member Peter A. Shapiro (D-Brentwood) to draft a bill to allow mobile vendors to continue to operate. Russell was incorrectly linked to the bill in an article in the Sept. 15 Prince George's Extra. (Published 09/29/99)

Two County Council members are looking into the possibility of amending a county law to allow street vendors on commercial property in Prince George's County.

The move would allow some longtime vendors who sell steamed crabs, ribs and hot dogs from mobile vans to remain in business. Recent complaints from residents along Indian Head Highway have led county officials to step up enforcement of a law limiting vendors from making sales, but the new measure could offer some vendors a reprieve.

A county law approved in 1996 bans vendors from selling steamed crabs, ribs and hot dogs along public rights of way, but no county law bans them from operating on commercial property, a council staff report concluded Friday. With that in mind, council members Peter A. Shapiro (D-Brentwood) and Ronald V. Russell (D-Mitchellville) are looking into amending the law to allow some vendors to operate in some venues.

The issue arose recently as civic groups pushed the county to eliminate the vendors, which they say are an eyesore. But county agencies and the vendors themselves were uncertain whether county law banning vendors from public rights of way also bans vendors from parking on commercial property.

Since January, county officials have not issued permits to the vendors, saying that the Department of Environmental Resources, which had been issuing them, lacks jurisdiction except for certain vendors: seasonal operators selling live seafood, ice cream and beverages.

Shapiro said his idea is not to return all vendors to county streets but to allow some vendors on commercial property.

"I don't want a proliferation of vendors," but vendors serve a community need and are an important entry-level business for small-business owners in the county, he said.

"We can't give up [doing business] because it's too important. People have been making a living doing this for 20-plus years," and they can't just stop, said Julia Reid, the unofficial leader of the Vendors Association and owner of Aunt B's, a seven-foot truck she has used for the past seven years to sell steamed crabs and shrimp from the Hampton Mall parking lot in Capitol Heights. The remaining 70 food vendors in the county are leasing space in private parking lots and have valid health permits, so they should be able to continue their business, she said.

Petey Green, former legislative aide to council member Isaac J. Gourdine (D-Fort Washington) and president of the management consulting firm Prince George's Community & Business Relations Corp. in Oxon Hill, said vendors have hurt the county's chances of attracting businesses and affluent residents alike. He says the vendors' presence hurts the image and the value of real estate in the county. "These vendors have really been a thorn in our side," said Green, who has been working to ban them since 1994, when he worked in the council member's office.

The decision to stop the Department of Environmental Resources from issuing temporary operating permits to year-round food vendors came from the county's Office of Law. In the nine months that have passed, the department has cited about 25 vendors for operating without a permit. Until now, confusion at the Department of Environmental Resources and the zoning appeals board over which laws affected the vendors has stalled enforcement, which in turn has left the 70 remaining food vendors in limbo--and has left the civic groups stewing in angry frustration.

"Ignorance of the law is no excuse, and we want the government to respond to us, the taxpayers," not the vendors, said Ed Morgan, president of the Riverbend Estates Homeowners Association, which represents 450 homeowners at a meeting called by five civic groups on the matter Sept. 7 at Indian Queen Elementary School in Fort Washington.

The Economic Development Corp., a quasi-public county development organization, has tried to reach out to vendors, but very few applied for small business loans or relocation assistance, said Joseph James, the group's president.

Alan Horne, a Fort Washington resident, has operated Smokey Joe's in the Oxon Hill Shopping Center for five years. He said he recently applied for a low-interest loan through the EDC but doesn't think he has enough capital or business knowledge to move to a storefront. He says the county government is to blame for the confusion.

Barbara Holtz of the Office of Law said that enforcement would be pursued through the courts if vendors failed to comply with the law.

CAPTION: Clarence Binky Ross, 26, left, chats with trucker Mike Moody in front of the Smoke Shack on Indian Head Highway. Two County Council members are examining the web of vendor regulations.