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Farmers, homeowners spar over preservation

Residents and farmers in western Howard County sparred Thursday night over whether three farm families should be allowed to reclaim the development rights on their farmland — the first-ever attempt to defect from Maryland's agricultural land-preservation program.

More than 100 people turned out for the hearing at the Howard County fairgrounds in West Friendship on the request by Steve, Mike and Mark Mullinix to withdraw their 490 acres from Maryland's program, which they had entered 28 years ago. The state paid $450,000 for an easement barring development — though owners who sold development rights before 2004 retain the right to ask out after 25 years if they can show that farming is no longer profitable.

The brothers have said they've been losing money raising corn, grain and cattle on the three tracts in Dayton and near Mount Airy. Steve Mullinix, the eldest of the three brothers, acknowledged that the past year has been better, but he said creeping development in the once completely rural western part of the county and changes in farming make agriculture no longer viable.

"If you can't make a living farming, who cares what your profits are?" he asked. He said motorists who once showed patience for slow-moving farm equipment now honk and "flip the bird" at them.

Some neighboring homeowners opposed the brothers' request, arguing that allowing development or other activities would ruin the scenic rural landscape.

"The choice is either farmland forever or farmland forever gone," said Rebecca Braukus, whose family moved next to one of the three farms seven years ago. She and others said they bought homes near the farms only after being assured by real estate agents and others that the open space would be permanently preserved.

Later in the hearing, Nicole Mullinix, daughter of Steve Mullinix, recalled places where she had played as a child that are now housing tracts. "I enjoy the views as much as you do," she said. "You ruined our views first."

Several farmers supported the Mullinixes, saying that farming is changing and farmers need more leeway in what they can do with and on their land.

Marc Hereth, 35, said he's been farming his family's 200 acres near the Mullinixes' Mount Airy farm for 13 years but has to work full time off the farm to make a living.

"If the state wants us to stay with the program," he said, "some changes need to be made."

To withdraw their land from the preservation program, the brothers must receive local and state approvals, including from the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation, which called Thursday's hearing. If the Mullinixes get permission to withdraw, they would have to pay the state back based on the current value of their land, likely far more than when it was preserved.

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