The dream of preserving the historic Long Island Farm in the Cromwell Valley area may be slipping away. If it does, "it will be a gigantic loss for historical preservation," said Trish Bentz, executive director of the Baltimore County Historical Trust.
Jim Kelly said he thinks about the farm "with great sadness." Kelly heads the executive committee for Historic Long Island Farm Inc., a group of citizens that incorporated in 2007 with a mission to protect the rural integrity of the 6.8-acre farm at 2200 Cromwell Bridge Road, which is bordered on three sides by Cromwell Valley Park.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places and included in the county's Landmarks Preservation List, the 292-year-old farm has been owned by the Risteau and Jenifer families since 1848.
The dream the group held in common with the last member of the families to live in the house, 82-year-old Lillian Jenifer, was that she would sell the property to a buyer — ideally Baltimore County or the state — which, in turn would lease it to the Historic Long Island Farm Inc. volunteers.
Historic Long Island Farm had worked for years to see that the property and its cultural resources are preserved. They planned to run it as "a 6.8-acre classroom" after basic restoration was completed, Kelly said.
"The possibilities are endless to educate our children and grandchildren about how our Colonial ancestors worked and lived."
The dream included nature camps, art programs, after-school events, festivals, craft demonstrations and — since many of the farm's old tools were still there — demonstrations of centuries-old farming techniques.
It almost came true
The dream, like the right buyer, remains elusive.
They came close, Kelly said. One investor almost bought the property, Kelly said, but when it was discovered that former 3rd District County Council member Bryan McIntire downzoned the property from one dwelling per acre, to one per 50 acres in order to protect it from development, there were tax ramifications that led the investor to back away, Kelly said.
The county can't buy the property "because of fiscal considerations and the state of the economy," said Ellen Kobler, spokeswoman for County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. "We need to focus on public safety, education and rebuilding infrastructure."
The county should have considered buying the property years ago, said 5th District County Council member David Marks.
"It would have been a logical addition to Cromwell Valley Park," he said.
In 2008, the state had funds available. It had the property appraised and gave notice that settlement was expected to take place in spring of that year, Kelly said.
"But they never made an offer," he said. "I think they pulled the money because of the downturn in the economy."
"I think it would have been the jewel in the county's crown," Bentz said. "We don't have a lot of tourism in the county. This could have been a destination attraction."
Meanwhile, there were other problems with the concept of preserving and restoring the property.
"The expenses for us to manage the farm were far more than we anticipated," said Kelly, noting the cost of property and liability insurance and property taxes. He said experts told the group it would take three or four years and $365,000 to rehabilitate the barn and house.
The board couldn't make that kind of financial commitment for three to five years, Kelly said, even though the Jenifer family was willing to donate money to get through the first year.
"We tried three or four organizations for grants, but we couldn't raise the money," he said. "The (county) Historic Trust would give us a small amount of grant money, but the rest said there were more organizations that were more qualified."
The state appraised the property for $1 million in 2008. The family has listed it with Coldwell Banker for $650,000.
The upshot is Historic Long Island Farm Inc. can no longer continue its efforts to preserve and rehabilitate the farm, Kelly stated in an email he circulated to supporters earlier this month.
"It is truly a disappointment that some government agency, public corporation or philanthropic organization could not recognize the importance of saving the values of Long Island Farm for future generations," he said.
Kelly said that, hopefully, any new owner will be respectful of the historic value of the farm and abide by the preservation requirements of its many historic designations.
"Even though the property is for sale on the open market, Historic Long Island Farm Inc. will stay active, and perhaps broaden our scope to the entire valley and continue our historical research," he said.The Jenifer family has mixed emotions.
Though Lillian Jenifer no longer lives at the farm, she has not given up hope, said her daughter, Anne Jenifer Walker.
"I don't think that she will ever give up the hope that the farm would be recognized as an historic site in some shape or form someday," Walker said. "It's been sad for all of us. The farm has been in our family since the mid-1700s. I grew up there. It is a beautiful property.
"On the one hand, we feel responsible," Walker said. "After all that time, we're the ones letting it go. That's a huge emotional thing for all of us.
"On the other hand, we're looking forward to the sale. We hope the new owner will love it as much as we do, and carry it into its next life, whatever it may be."