Squash ban? County comes down on produce stand

By Kimberley Liu

Everybody complains about the heat in the summer, but nobody complains about having fresh tomatoes or sweet corn except maybe the Albemarle County.

Mark and Raphaelle Tammen moved here from Minnesota three years ago and began happily tilling and planting at Mountain Hollow Farm. They were doing a bang-up business at their popular produce stand on Ivy Road until an inspector from the Albemarle County Department of Building Codes and Zoning stopped by on July 24.

Unfortunately, the Tammens did not have the requisite temporary sales permit. According to Raphaelle Tammen, inspector Lisa Green told them to close down the stand, and she indicated they would have to pay a fine. The nature of the visit was "definitely very threatening," Tammen says.

However, county spokeswoman Lee Catlin says that the County never intended to close down the Tammens' stand. According to Catlin, Green left the stand with nothing more than the understanding that the Tammens would need to apply for a permit in order to stay in business. The Hook was unable to reach Green, who was on vacation.

But the Tammens were clear enough on their impression of Green's visit to make immediate preparations to close the shop. They instructed the stand operator, Lizzie Haupt, to tell customers that they would shut down by the next Sunday, July 28.

"I just didn't want to fight the County," Mark Tammen says.

But some of his customers were not happy that they wouldn't be able to get any more of Tammen's sweet watermelons and other vegetables. Several called the zoning department expressing their displeasure at the stand's closing and concern for the way the situation was being handled. "Customers got irate and got after the County," Tammen says.

"It will be a sad day when a truck farmer isn't allowed to give people the freshest produce," says one of the stand's regulars.

Within days, the zoning department contacted Tammen about what steps he needed to take to get the required permit. Tammen attributes the County's attention to the intervention by his loyal customers. "They must have got tired of people calling," he says.

But Catlin insists that customer phone calls did not trigger the resolution of the problem. Working with the Tammens was simply the next step in the zoning department's standard procedure, she says.

The County did investigate several customers' complaints that the inspector handled the situation insensitively, she says, but determined that there was nothing inappropriate or threatening about Green's conduct. The customers at the stand during Green's visit just misunderstood what was taking place, Catlin says.

Further, she stresses that the zoning department is not becoming "heavy-handed" and never tries to shut down businesses or issue threats but instead helps businesses comply with regulations.

"We want to work with people to make sure they are getting the proper approval," she says.

Mark Tammen agreed that, after the initial visit, the County has been "very nice" in trying to resolve the situation.

The Tammens met with zoning department representatives on Tuesday, July 30, and were told to apply for a permit to stay open three days a week Mondays, Fridays, and Saturdays through August 20.

Catlin says that the county allows temporary retailers to operate only three days a week. A permit to run a business full-time requires additional application time that the Tammens, with the growing season coming to an end, don't have.

But what about the fact that fresh vegetables grow seven days a week? Raphaelle Tammen feels that the reduced hours disappoint their loyal customers and jeopardize their business.

"We won't be able to make a living in three days," she says. A produce stand almost has to be a seven-day operation, she claims. "After all," she notes, "the cukes don't stop growing."

Raphaelle is amazed at her customers' support. "We feel like they're starving, like they don't eat anything the rest of the year," she jokes.

Maybe that's true. Says one of her regulars, "It's a drought, for Chrissakes. Who else has good looking tomatoes around here?"