Vendors don't see wrong in right of way

Wilbur Kennedy of Summerville sells watermelons Wednesday from the back of his truck along Dorchester Road near Cross County Road in North Charleston. Kennedy says he doesn't like to the idea of paying to use the roadside spot that he's used for years.

Wilbur Kennedy lives on disability, Social Security and the cash he makes hawking watermelons on Dorchester Road. Keiah Burnell says she's putting her son through college selling watermelons and shrimp on Rivers Avenue.

Roadside vendors — those truck bed sellers of watermelons, shrimp, tacos and other bites for motorists — sit right on the line between private property and public right of way.

A North Charleston City Council committee on Wednesday approved an ordinance that would put the burden on owners of the properties where vendors set up; owners would have to pay for host registrations and get vendor sites inspected at a combined cost of about $25. The proposal is expected to go to full council vote in August.

The ordinance puts a stamp on months of council discussion about cracking down on what members see as more-marginal vendors that are considered nuisances and safety and tax problems.

Many vendors set up at the edge of public right of way, just off the road, without permission. They have been able to sell by getting a $50 peddler's license and not quite toeing the law that says they can't operate in the right of way.

The registry would force vendors onto properties where owners are willing to have them and provide codes, taxes and a way for police officers to track who is or isn't doing business legally.

The ordinance has been controversial — the stands are popular stops. Mayor Keith Summey conceded that roadside stands are "almost part of Southern tradition."

Kennedy has been selling on Dorchester Road for about 20 years. He said he told an unhappy property owner that the owner can't force him to leave — he's on right of way. He asked a city official a long time ago what he should do if anybody tries to kick him off. He was told to give them a piece of watermelon, Kennedy said.

"I can't pay (an owner) that much. I don't make that much," he said. "I don't think they ought to move me from here. I don't bother anybody."

Burnell thinks hard when asked what she'll do. Her canopy is set up right at the grass border where the Rivers Avenue asphalt ends. She doesn't know who owns the open lot behind her. She's afraid any owner she would deal with would want too much money to rent the space.

"I definitely don't see the law as being fair. It's not like there's a whole lot of us. It's not like we leave anything behind us. We should be required to have our (peddler's) license and left alone, as long as we're in a safe place and as long as the customers want us."

Council members were concerned about the ability of a pressed codes enforcement staff to handle the new ordinance. They asked for a report at the January 2009 meeting on how well it's worked. Council member Steve Ayer said he would support the ordinance to see if it worked. "If it doesn't work, we're going to ban them and let them go down the road."