Carrying signs reading "Save Our Flea Market," about 70 people protested the possible closing of a flea market north of Plant City on Wednesday outside the zoning department building.
County officials say the open-air flea market known as Country Village has violated zoning laws since 1979. Officials say the flea market's owner, Ferris Waller, could avoid the county's plans to close Country Village by constructing a building to house the vendors, who pay Waller $5 a day in rent.
Zoning Department officials first ruled that the market should close in 1979; the owner has appealed the decision ever since. Two weeks ago, an attorney for Country Village got a hearing before the zoning board of adjustment postponed until Feb. 21. The board could close the market then.
In the meantime, vendors said they would try to bring attention to their dilemma.
Shutting down Country Village will kill their only source of income and put them on welfare, they said. "I'm 69 years old and this is the only job I do," said Trudy Bennett, who sells vegetables at the 10-acre market.
Roofing in the flea market would drive away many of the thousands of customers who come to stroll through Country Village under the Florida sun, the vendors said.
"It'll be just like a shopping center if we have to close it in," said produce vendor Sonja Lopez, whose husband was a migrant farm worker before he began selling produce.
Four protesters met with Gene Bolles, county planning and zoning director. Bolles told them he sympathized with their plight, but Country Village officials have known since 1979 that the market violated county zoning laws.
"We're not making a value judgment here, we're just interpreting the law," Bolles said.
Many of the 600 vendors at the flea market are migrant farm workers, Mexicans or elderly, said Randy Cecil, a community activist who organized the protest. Vendors often make twice as much as they could when they are migrant farming, Cecil said.
"It's the next step up from picking from the vine," Cecil said.
The vendors want to get help from the County Commission as well. Although commissioners are not scheduled to make the decision, vendors would like them to step into the controversy.
"We're coming down to the wire," Cecil said. "Somebody has to find a solution soon."