By Patrick Hedlund
DNAinfo News Editor
EAST VILLAGE — A Christmas tree vendor thinks the city is playing Scrooge for slapping him with an expensive fine for keeping a makeshift shack on Second Avenue to keep his employees warm.
Roger Baust, who has sold trees and wreaths outside St. Marks Church in the Bowery near East 10th Street for the past six years without incident, got hit with a $1,500 summons from the Department of Transportation last week for having a temporary structure on the sidewalk that gives his staffers periodic breaks from the cold while selling trees.
Baust, who rents space from the church as well as the sidewalk surrounding the triangular park located in front of the building, claimed he was never required to have a permit in the past for his operation.
The short-term shack is a necessity for employees, he explained, who use it as refuge from the elements and even sleep there overnight to keep guard over the many holiday wares on display.
The vendor has already sold more than 1,000 trees and only has about a dozen remaining less than a week before Christmas, so he wants to know why the city is now suddenly coming down on him.
"Actually I'm going to be losing money this year," said Baust, who sources his trees from the Catskills area upstate and said the ongoing recession has forced him to unload them at a discount. "I'm getting squeezed hard here."
Baust, a 30-year tree vendor who said he was asked by the church to bring his operation there, added that a DOT inspector even told him his shack left adequate space for pedestrians to pass along the sidewalk.
"There's only so much I can do," he said, noting he's never been cited for his shack in the past. "I certainly can't pay a fine. That's not an option."
Susan Stetzer, district manager of Community Board 3, said her office received complaints about the sidewalk structure, so she turned them over to the city, which came last week to summons the vendor.
"Just because somebody got away with something for years does not mean it is correct," she said of Baust not having permit for the shack.
A DOT spokesman confirmed that the vendor was issued a summons for having the structure on the sidewalk, adding that it must be removed under city order.
But with so few days left before Christmas, Baust wondered how he's supposed to respond after doing business as usual for the last month.
"They welcome seeing us, because it's the holidays," he said of neighbors' reactions to the operation. "That's what makes this a nice little community, because it's friendly."
The "warm-up hut," as Baust called it, is vital to his rotating staff of employees who wouldn't be able to stand in the freezing weather all day without it.
"I can't expect the guys to be out here in the cold 24-7," he said. "That's barbaric."
The church even sent a letter to the DOT requesting the vendor be allowed stay as is, but as of now Baust has a February court date for his initial citation and may face even more fines from the city.
"I'm very exhausted and tired," he said of selling trees every day since Thanksgiving.
"I'm just trying to catch my breath for the rest of the month. Being out in the cold all day long, that's a certain type of activity that really strains the body."