Entry for August 12, 2006

Town shuts down 13-year-old’s $5-a-month worm-selling business because the small cardboard sign on his lawn violated zoning laws

By SARAH MISHKIN, Courant Staff Writer

CROMWELL — Local worm salesmen, beware. As 13-year-old Joe Cadieux learned recently, Cromwell can be a hostile environment for those looking to break into night crawler vending – particularly if they advertise with a yard sign.

A worm business that Joe has operated since he was 10 was shut down two weeks ago when Cromwell’s planning and zoning commission issued a cease-and-desist order because the teenager’s sign violated local zoning regulations.

“It’s ridiculous,” said the middle school student, who made $5 to $10 a month selling worms collected from his front yard, where they are plentiful after spring rainstorms. Most of the worms he sold went to local fishermen, though Joe said one repeat customer dissected the worms with his Boy Scout troop. He kept the worms in a basement drawer filled with bedding, and sold them in small blue containers.

“It’s not really like I’m doing anything wrong,” he said.

But the town’s planning commission sees it differently. The sign Joe stuck in his front yard on Washington Road to advertise his business, commission members said, violated local regulations on home businesses. Joe’s stepfather, August Reil III, described the sign as a placard about 18-by-18-inches, that read “Nite Crawlers” and listed Joe’s phone number.“What kind of town am I living in where they’re going to put the kibosh on a 13-year-old’s worm business?” Reil said. “It was just to teach him the values of working and getting paid for it.”

Commission member Al Diaz said he mentioned the sign during a discussion of illegal business signs in town. He said he told Cromwell’s zoning enforcement officer to deal with the problematic worm sign, which he said could hurt the residential character of the Washington Road area. Diaz had seen the sign for years while driving through the area, he said.

“In a residential zone, if you want to put up a business and work out of your home you really need a special permit,” Diaz said. “You come before the commission and state your case …and then a decision is made. Chiropractors do that, lawyers do that, doctors do that, and then you’re allowed to put up a sign.”

But is a night crawler business – whose 13-year-old operator couldn’t even buy a full tank of gas for the family car with his summer earnings – like a doctor’s office, or is it just a creepy-crawly version of selling lemonade?

Town Planner Craig Minor said town regulations are vague on businesses such as lemonade and farm stands. In his opinion, the stands are allowed because they are considered customary use of property – just like a backyard barbecue, which doesn’t require an assembly permit, or a doghouse that doesn’t need special approval.

But the zoning regulations, he acknowledged, do not explicitly allow Joe’s night crawler placard.

While Diaz stood behind his decision Thursday, other town officials say the commission exceeded common sense in issuing the cease-and-desist order.

Just let the boy have his night crawler stand, said First Selectman Paul Beaulieu. Reason, he said, should have stepped in when the regulations were vague.

“There’s the letter of the law, but there’s also common sense,” he said. “This was over the top. Kids selling night crawlers and lemonade are part and parcel of life in small-town Connecticut.”

Minor said the affected worm salesman can appeal the order to the zoning board of appeals, but Reil said the $130 fee to appeal is prohibitive for the night crawler business – Joe would have to sell over 500 worms just to break even.

Contact Sarah Mishkin at smishkin@courant.com.

Lawyers and Politicians, who needs them? -Carnell

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