Farm stands come under fire
State Highway Administration shuts down River Road farm stand; permitting officials, stand operators left confused
On Sunday, Bethesda resident Mark Jacobson, 59, was picking out a few pieces of fresh fruit and vegetables at the Country Thyme farm stand, located along River Road in the Kenwood neighborhood.
He picked out some corn for the barbeque, some watermelon for dessert, and some peaches — "because they looked good."
Jacobson has been shopping at Country Thyme for nearly 10 years. "You're supporting local growers," said Jacobson, a Bethesda resident. "They also have ripe fruit — that's hard to find at the grocery stores."
Country Thyme operator Jonathan Sadd, 38, agrees. Later in the season, the stand will have even more offerings — including okra, flat beans, nectarines, and his trademark purple tomatoes. But he's hoping the stand will be able to continue providing fresh produce to River Road travelers in the near future.
Some farm stands like Country Thyme that operate within State Highway Administration rights-of-way are being told they can no longer vend there. Recently, SHA officials shut down a farm stand located west of Country Thyme at River Road and Carderock Drive. It has since moved to Democracy Boulevard, but the closure is highlighting confusion about where farm stands are allowed to operate in the county, and has residents up in arms about potential effects on their favorite farm stands.
The Carderock site, operated by Rob Ficker, son of political activist Robin Ficker, was shut down after SHA officials said they received complaints about dumping there and discovered the operation.
"They are on state property and therefore, they are illegal," said David Buck, a spokesman for SHA. "That is as clear as I think clear can be. It would be the equivalent of someone setting up a fruit stand in your front yard."
Officials cited concerns with traffic and pedestrian safety, and have since marked the area for a guard rail.
Ficker, however, sees it differently. "This is an art form for me, and that's what a lot of my customers sensed at my stand," said Ficker, also known for planting flowers there. "I think the state is missing that, and that's something that can't just be thrown away or ignored or de-valued."
The move came as a surprise both to the farm stand owners who have been operating on River Road for long amounts of time — Sadd has been there for 10 years, Ficker for three — and to the county Department of Permitting Services, who issued both Sadd and Ficker permits to operate.
According to county zoning manager Susan Scala-Demby, the county's vendor regulations permit farm stands in the right-of-way. And until SHA required Ficker to relocate, Scala-Demby said she thought that included both county and state rights-of-way. The state reviewed the vendor law when it was enacted in the 1990s, she said.
On Monday, Scala-Demby hadn't spoken with the State Highway Administration for clarification. SHA maintains that they are enforcing the rule now because they weren't aware of the farm stands previously, and that the rule has always been on the books.
"Whether it's been 10 years or as recently as a few months, we do have a responsibility to the public to make sure those areas are clear," said SHA spokeswoman Kellie Boulware.
Amid the confusion, other county farm stand operators have complained county regulations governing vendors are unclear. Some have run afoul of regulations though they don't operate within a state right-of-way. Roger Asbury, who runs Roger's Produce at Seven Locks Road and Tuckerman Lane, said he had been operating with a county permit since the 1980s when someone complained that he was vending on residential property several years ago.
The stand was located on property owned by a homeowner's association. Though Asbury had written permission from the HOA to operate there, Scala-Demby said vendors are not allowed to operate on residential property unless they grow the produce on the site.
"How can the county approve something for years, and I myself felt I was following their guidelines, and then after 25 years come and tell me I can't be there?" Asbury said.
After spending a large sum on legal fees, Asbury has resolved the issue with the county — Scala-Demby said the property had been re-zoned as right-of-way, and the stand continues to operate. But Asbury says he feels the regulations aren't being applied to every vendor who operates on residential property.
Scala-Demby said permitting services may not be aware of other violations. As far as the state right-of-way issue, she said permitting officials hadn't been aware of the state's position and would help vendors in state right-of-way relocate.
SHA has already instructed Sadd to vacate, but for him, that's a last resort. People have become familiar with the stand on the popular commuter roadway, and many stop in on their way home or to work, Sadd said.
He said he's willing to work with the state or even to pay an additional permitting fee. But he maintains —with the support of his customers — that he will fight to stay on River Road. "They're going to have to drag us out of here in chains," Sadd said.