Lobster Guy is once again facing an eviction -- of sorts.
After spending close to 20 years selling lobster, shrimp, clams, tuna, salmon and a slew of other piscatorial delicacies from his longtime perch on the campus of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Andrew Beardall was forced to leave when security concerns closed the acreage to the public after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
He and his business partner, Don McGee, eventually landed in the parking lot of a small general store in a residential neighborhood in Bethesda, at Greentree Road just off Old Georgetown Road. But the area is zoned residential, and Salt River Lobster, as the fishmongers' company is called, is a commercial enterprise that never got a permit to be open for business every Friday.
Montgomery County has cited them with notices of violation for conducting business without a license. When Beardall, 33, and McGee, 53, pleaded their case in front of the county's Board of Appeals last month, they lost. They are awaiting a written decision from the board members so they can appeal to the county's Circuit Court.
Board members declined to comment on the case, said Katherine Freeman, a staff member for the board, adding that "the decision has not yet been issued in its final form."
Beardall says that "60 percent" of Salt River's Friday customers are NIH employees who, even though the business is no longer on campus, now "walk across the street. If we had to move somewhere, we would be out of business."
And while Salt River Lobster also operates for four hours at the Kensington train station every Saturday, in a "lovely community . . . surrounded by very nice people who like seafood," Beardall said, "if we only had that alone, we would have to fold. There's just not enough volume."
Their Friday site in the parking lot at the Bethesda Community Store gives them that volume, he said.
But homeowners near the store say their neighborhood is no place for a fishmonger. The 80-year-old store was grandfathered in at mid-century, when the surrounding area was zoned residential.
"For us, what it really boils down to is, a commercial fish operation does not belong on residential property, and we think they should obey the law," said Lorraine Driscoll, former president and current vice president of the Huntington Terrace Citizens' Association, one of the neighborhood organizations that have opposed the arrival of Beardall's business. "The laws are there for a reason."
Carol Logun, who has bought from Salt River Lobster for nearly two decades and lives on the NIH side of the neighborhood, said she wholeheartedly supports Beardall and McGee.
"The only [other] place I'll buy fish is either Whole Foods or Sutton Place [Gourmet], and [Salt River] is a little bit cheaper than both of those places, but the quality [is] superior to anything you can get in other stores," she said.
Beardall and McGee import their lobsters from Maine: They are trucked down fresh about 4 a.m. on Fridays by their partner, Mike McConnell. The Maryland guys then sell their wares from packed coolers in the parking lot, Beardall said.
One solution proposed by Beardall, who works as a criminal lawyer in Rockville when he isn't hauling seafood, is to attach a zoning text amendment to the property in question, allowing the store to expand slightly and allowing for the fishmongers on Fridays.
But neighbors worry that the amendment would open the door to "itinerant vendors" -- that a tire shop could come in on Tuesdays, and a massage truck could come in on Wednesdays. Others worry about opening the door to a bigger commercial enterprise.
"I have no objections to the store staying there or the fish market," Logun said. "But I would not be happy with a McDonald's . . . or a liquor store or something."
Council member Steven A. Silverman (D-At-Large) said: "It's very unfortunate. He got booted out after September 11th, but where he is now doesn't seem to be the best place for him."
Beardall compares his plight with that of the Shaved Ice Guy, who sells snow cones from a cart in downtown Bethesda and nearly lost his license this summer until sympathetic publicity -- and intervention on his behalf from council member Howard A. Denis (R-Potomac-Bethesda) -- helped renew the vendor's license for a year.
But Silverman rejects the comparison. It's one thing to be "the Shaved Ice Guy . . . in a commercial zone," Silverman said. It's another, to be the Lobster Guy in a residential neighborhood.
"I'd rather find a place for him in a commercial zone, where there's no controversy over what the site is supposed to be used for," Silverman said. "I mean, that's a very challenging site to have drive-in traffic. . . . It's a two-lane road, and it's not a very large parking area."
As for rezoning, he added: "I think there'll be tremendous pushback from the community if there's an attempt to make that a commercial area. I would prefer to find another location for him in the Bethesda area."
But the Salt River Lobster company isn't giving up yet.
"We've been dealing with this for about 21/2 years," said McGee. "We're hoping that we can work something out with the homeowners. We're going to try a different approach -- try to meet with some of the homeowners who are on our side."