By TAYLOR BROWN
After announcing four farm stands – two in the Mid-Mon Valley – were open in the region on Wednesday, Duda’s Farm posted a Facebook update several hours later asking for community support.
Last week, the Luzerne Township farm received a letter from PennDOT stating that all existing roadside signs advertising for the farm must be taken down. The notice also indicated Duda’s will not be permitted to advertise at any of its upcoming farm stands.
The situation began with similar letters last year.
Mark Duda, owner of Duda’s Farm, said a complaint about the signs was originally filed in Harrisburg.
Last week, letters from PennDOT started rolling in again, but Duda said he will leave the signs up until the state takes them down.
PennDOT press officer Steve Cowan said the signs were brought to the department’s attention this year.
Cowan said, if applicable, signs will be removed at the owner’s expense or $500-a-day fines can be issued.
Locally, Duda’s stands are open in Rostraver Township by Val’s Car Wash and on Route 51 near the Route 136 overpass in Forward Township.
Duda said he was told by PennDOT that the signs violate right-of-way encroachment and outdoor advertising sign control because they do not fall under the exempt sign categories. Those include political signs, yard sale signs and other small temporary signs on private property with the property owners’ permission.
“All of the signs that are there are on my property or someone else’s property and have permission to be there,” Duda said. “They are out of the way. I just don’t see what the problem is. But PennDOT is still telling me they are illegal.”
Cowan said signs more than 50 feet from the premise must have proper permits.
“Having these signs along our right of way is a public safety concern and a legal liability,” Cowan said. “It is the state law, and we are required to follow it as well.”
Duda took a drive and counted more than 60 signs along Route 166 that would fall under the same category as his signs, but said PennDOT told him it is only concerned about the signs for which it receives complaints.
Duda is in the process of applying for permits for permanent signage that would be legally left up year-round, but said the process is lengthy.
“There is a lot of red tape to go through, including getting blueprints,” Duda said.
“I have no problem paying $30 per sign if it will resolve this issue.”
Duda said his family and business only have three or four months to market products that they work year-round to produce.
Duda claims calling on state senators and representatives to stand behind legislation that would allow farmers markets to continue advertising would make a difference to his family and its livelihood.
After receiving the first notice last year, Duda contacted state Rep. Pam Snyder, who represents the 50th Legislative District.
The district comprises Brownsville, Brownsville Township, Luzerne Township, Masontown and Redstone Township in Fayette County; East Bethlehem Township and Centerville in Washington County; and all of Greene County.
“Pam Snyder took it to heart and took it under her wing,” Duda said. “I cannot say enough good about what she did for us. She never met us. We didn’t know her, but she took it personally.”
Snyder said Pennsylvania was founded as a farming state.
“To this day, agriculture continues to be a leading industry and major driver of our economy,” Snyder said. “As legislators, it is our responsibility to protect and preserve our local farms that put food on the table and that have financially sustained families for generations.”
Snyder introduced House Bill 1561, which passed on March 22 and is awaiting action in the Senate.
Snyder’s legislation gives local farmers who rely on small stands the abilty to sell their products and to promote the location of those stands along state roads without costly and time-consuming permits.
“She has tried to do the right thing,” Duda said. “She made some adjustments to the current law, and it is sitting on the table.”
“I understand that PennDOT has to respond to complaints and abide by the current regulations,” Snyder said. “It’s my hope we can change this policy so farmers can promote their local produce stands without any extra burden.”
Duda said he submitted a right-to-know request in Harrisburg, asking how many farmers markets have been targeted by complaints for their signage in the last 10 years – with frustrating results.
“The complaints that I saw were few and far between,” Duda said. “The ones I did see were due to a safety hazard. If my signs were too close to the road or dangerous, I would understand. But they aren’t. Some of them are in the middle of corn fields.”
As of presstime, the Facebook post asking for support has received more than 350 comments, 1,500 likes and 4,800 shares.
“I am not going to sit and roll over,” Duda said. “I have a lot invested in this business. Farm market signs are a part of Americana.
“We try very, very hard to grow the best produce we can, the sweetest corn, the best tomatoes. We train our employees to be helpful and courteous. Our signs are made as nice and neat as possible. We try to do things professionally.”
Duda said he understands that local PennDOT officials are just trying to do their jobs, but so is he.
“This is my livlihood,” Duda said.