Alerted by a phone call one recent Sunday, Stephen Pieper drove his black pickup the few miles from his farm in White Hall to Monkton, where he arrived too late to stop a man from plowing under the corn on 95 acres of land he'd leased for decades.
Pieper, who leases more than 1,000 acres in Baltimore and Harford counties, said $100,000 worth of corn was destroyed by the farm's new owner — the CEO of Hunt Valley-based Sinclair Broadcast Group. David Smith, who heads the nation's largest independent TV broadcast company, had no choice, his attorney said. Pieper trespassed to plant the crop and damaged the soil, Smith alleged in a lawsuit.
"All he wants is his farm," said Francis R. Laws, Smith's attorney. "He wants to enjoy the use of the property that he bought."
Pieper, 62, said that in more than 30 years of farming from about 50 landlords, farms have been developed and changed hands, but he has never seen a crop destroyed.
"This is devastating to me," Pieper said after watching the crop fall on July 20, when he tried to head off the tractor hired by Smith. "This crop would have been harvested in 75 days. It's sickening."
The feud, simmering for more than a year before the crop was plowed under, is heading for trial in November in Baltimore County Circuit Court. It centers on a one-page agricultural lease governing use of the parcel in northern Baltimore County. The field sits in an area where hundreds of acres of sloping farmland give way to sprawling brick homes and upscale developments. Farmers vie with one another to rent a limited amount of land, and landlords and tenants have been known to clash when properties change hands.
But some community members say few disagreements have become as acrimonious as the one over the field at the intersection of Carroll Mill and Stockton roads.
"There's always a concern when people buy farms, about the relationship with the person who is farming," said Wayne McGinnis, a North County farmer and member of the Baltimore County Planning Commission, who said he is aware of the dispute.
Typically, under state law, owners must give six months' written notice to cancel a lease, some of which are verbal agreements, and many real estate agents are not aware of the requirements, he said.
"Some feel they can buy a farm and they can have complete control over it, but not if it is subject to a lease," McGinnis said. "But then again, the farmer can't just abuse his lease on the farm. Sometimes there's animosity between the farmer and the new purchasers."
At issue in this case is the interpretation of a five-year lease Pieper signed in 2011 with the prior owner, for which he paid the $55,100 rent in full. Smith bought the 235-acre Carroll Mill property in March 2013 after acquiring membership interests in Corbett Farms II LLC for an undisclosed amount. The property has an assessed value of $304,300.
Smith declined to be interviewed for this article and referred questions to his attorney.
Sinclair, founded by Smith 28 years ago, has been on a buying binge in recent years, consolidating its position as the nation's largest broadcaster. Smith's father put WBFF-TV on the air in Baltimore in 1971 as one of the country's first ultra-high-frequency (UHF) stations. A week after the crop plowing incident, Sinclair closed one of its biggest deals yet — the nearly $1 billion acquisition of seven ABC affiliates and a Washington-based cable news channel.
Meanwhile, Smith, 63, who lives in Cockeysville, is expanding his restaurant business as owner of Bagby Restaurant Group, which now operates Fleet Street Kitchen, Bagby Pizza and Ten Ten in Harbor East, and Cunningham Kitchen in Towson. Some of his agricultural properties help supply those establishments, said Laws, adding that he's unsure of Smith's plans for the disputed farm.
Court documents show Smith never intended to buy land encumbered with a lease — the sales contract promised unimproved land free of leases. He tried unsuccessfully to end the lease in February 2013.
In his original complaint filed against Pieper in March 2013, Smith said the farmer breached the terms of the lease by failing to adequately treat the soil, prevent topsoil erosion or furnish soil samples for analysis. Pieper blocked the new owner from the land, padlocking the gate to the farm's only access road, the lawsuit says.
Smith, who owns farm-to-table restaurants and intended to farm the land, offered to pay Pieper for any losses and for the value of the lease, but the farmer refused, according to court documents. In April of this year, documents say, Pieper ignored "No trespassing" signs, broke down a fence put up by Smith and planted another crop.
When Smith visited the property in the spring, he found "serious" erosion, his attorney said. To comply with state soil conservation standards, Smith hired a contractor to remediate, a $125,000 job that required removing the crop, his attorney said.
"After giving notice to the tenant that Mr. Smith was taking back the property and that the tenant was not to come onto the property, Mr. Smith was certainly within his right to 'self-help' in excluding the tenant and doing whatever he saw fit for the property," Laws said. "He has an obligation as the owner of a farm to comply with state standards with respect to soil conservation, and that's one of the things he was doing."
Pieper's attorney, Thomas C. Beach III, disputes that account.