It was nearing the end of what would be his last Anne Arundel County Council meeting, and councilman Cliff R. Roop was savoring a hard-fought victory in the kind of small-scale yet complex land-use battle that typifies suburban Anne Arundel politics.
At issue was an effort by the owner of a popular Severna Park produce stand to win the right to store fresh vegetables in a shed behind a house he owns. It wasn't the kind of battle that makes headlines, yet it had spawned hours of subcommittee and planning board debate and prompted dozens of residents to speak out at a public hearing.
On the night of Jan. 3, Roop, who had championed the produce salesman's cause, had just persuaded the council to vote in favor of a zoning-code change to help the vendor. Then he left the room and collapsed.
"He was just feeling really good about [the vote]," said his aide Pam Scarbro, who chatted with Roop, 44, about the victory before he died of a massive heart attack. "I'm sure he just felt fulfilled as a legislator in having done that."
Yet the saga isn't over for vegetable salesman Douglas Diehl. He still faces a few zoning hurdles, and some neighbors complain that he is wrongly conducting business activities in their residential community.
For 28 years, Diehl has spent the months from April to December collecting produce from small farms all over eastern Maryland to sell at the Severna Park Village Shopping Center on McKinsey Road. A regular cadre of loyal customers, who praise his vegetable savvy and his perfectly ripened tomatoes, shun the produce sections of chain grocery stores in favor of his tented stand.
Diehl owns a house on nearby Robinson Road that he rents to tenants, and for the past 22 years, he has used the brick garage in the back to store vegetables.
But using the garage as a warehouse is considered commercial activity, and Diehl's house, of course, is in an area zoned for strictly residential purposes, as Diehl himself concedes.
"I had been, uh, noncomplying," he said. But for years, he claims, no one had complained about it.
Yet things got tense last year with neighbors, some of whom were annoyed by Diehl's habit of ferrying produce from the garage to the stand with a pickup truck they claim was too heavy and noisy for the small residential streets.
One neighbor filed a complaint with county zoning enforcement officials, who followed through with a warning to Diehl to close his warehouse.
Diehl responded by asking to have his property rezoned as a commercial site--the same as the shopping center parking lot it abuts--so that his produce storage would be considered lawful.
County planners agreed to recommend a light-commercial zone known as C3. Problem was, C3 zones don't allow produce storage. So Diehl began another crusade, this time enlisting the help of Roop to ask: Because the county was already in the process of revamping its zoning codes--couldn't it just amend the C3 designation to allow some vegetable storage?
Diehl knew Roop as a customer and had contributed $250 to his County Council campaign in 1998. "He was a small businessman, and I had never heard of his opponent," Diehl said. "He was a great councilman--you could get him on the phone."
The planning office acknowledged Diehl and Roop's plea and wrote the new zoning ordinance to allow produce storage in C3 zones. Scarbro said Roop was sympathetic to Diehl's business needs and wanted to help him keep the stand going.
"Cliff, as a businessman himself, wanted to help him within the limits of the law," she said. "This is not a special exception for one person, but it's good government."
Others disagreed. "We've got a piece of spot legislation here," said Albert M. Johnston, a Severna Park resident and vice chairman of a subcommittee of the local "small area" planning group that is recommending zoning changes to the county.
Johnston praised Diehl as "the best produce manager I've ever met--he understands fresh vegetables," but complained that county officials have so far paid little heed to the problems at the Robinson Road property.
When another council member introduced an amendment to the zoning ordinance that would have eliminated the produce storage provision from the C3 zone, dozens of Diehl's customers showed up at a council meeting last month to protest. Johnston said that none was a Robinson Road resident.
At last week's meeting, Roop gave an impassioned speech urging his fellow council members to shoot down the amendment. The amendment failed, by a vote of 1 to 6.
Scarbro said Roop was jubilant as he excused himself from the council room. "I said, 'How did you do that?' He said, 'I almost had seven,' " she said. "He was just feeling really good about it."
Minutes later, he collapsed. Diehl, who was sitting in the audience, heard someone ask if there was a doctor in the building. "My heart just sank," he said. "I'm still miserable about it. As great a victory as it was, it was bittersweet."
Though Diehl has prevailed in keeping the storage provision in the proposed new zoning code, he still doesn't have a commercial designation on his yard.
Despite the recommendation by county planners to give him the C3 designation, the county Planning Advisory Board voted unanimously against it.
The final decision rests with the County Council, which has thus far signaled its support of Diehl but won't take up the issue until spring or summer. And next time, one key ally won't be there.
"It sounds selfish, but losing Cliff is a terrible blow," Diehl said. "He was a good public servant. He was there for all the people, not just Doug Diehl."