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After years of debate, Sparks poultry farm wins approval to build farmer's stand

ConsumersJustice SystemWegmans Food Markets, Inc.

For 17 generations, members of Catherine Webb's family have worked or lived on Springfield Farm in northern Baltimore County, where chickens and turkeys roam the hilly ground and, three days a week, Webb sells eggs and chicken meat from a farmhouse garage-turned-store.

In Webb's view, such direct-to-consumer sales will sustain the farm's operation for future generations, which include her two daughters and her sister's children.

But neighbors have fought a 2006 proposal by her parents to build a farmer's roadside stand inside a three-level barn. The plan sparked a years-long zoning battle and put farm upgrades on hold, Webb said.

This month, the family got word that a decision by Maryland's second highest court could bring the family's vision closer to reality. In an opinion issued Feb. 6, the Court of Special Appeals reversed a Baltimore County Circuit Court decision that denied the request to run the roadside stand.

"We're very glad it's over with, and we've won, not just for us but for other farmers," Webb said Sunday, as she greeted customers and rang up orders of eggs, milk and turkey sausage. The farm, which keeps 2,700 free range chickens, is known for its eggs. "By selling directly to the consumer, you can make enough money to support yourself," without having to work a second job off the farm.

The court decision highlights the nature of conflicts in suburban Baltimore between farmers and residents, as farmers look for related sources of income and homeowners fight to preserve the rural character.

Webb's parents, David and Lilly Smith, bought the 67-acre Sparks farm from his parents in 1990. They started raising chickens and turkeys and at first sold eggs from their kitchen before converting the garage to a store.

The Smiths are now semi-retired, living part-time in Florida and part-time at the farm, where Webb and her family live. Her sister and her family live in a house across the street. Family members do the work, feeding animals, collecting, washing and sorting eggs, running the business side.

In 2006, the Smiths applied for a use permit with Baltimore County to sell meat, eggs and dairy products out of the 2,280-square-foot main level of a barn they proposed building into a bank, leaving the main and upper levels visible from the road.

The lower level was to house refrigeration, storage and a commercial egg-washing machine. Currently, family members hand-wash and package 45,000 dozen eggs produced each year for retail and wholesale as well as those sold on the farm.

The county's zoning commissioner approved the permit. But seven nearby property owners and the People's Counsel for Baltimore County objected, filing an appeal with the Baltimore County Board of Appeals.

During a 2010 hearing, neighbors voiced concerns about increased traffic and the size and scope of the barn. Additionally, they worried the Smiths would run a distribution facility out of the barn and sell products produced elsewhere, according to the court papers. Zoning regulations require that most products sold be produced on premises or on nearby farms.

The county appeals board found it is a "custom and tradition for farmers to have roadside stands to sell their products." The proposed stand would be "a small part of the farming operation…providing a space to sell the products produced by the farm and currently sold from the garage."

The neighbors appealed to the Circuit Court, which reversed the earlier decision, and concluded the farm stand failed to meet the definition of an "accessory structure" under county zoning. The Smiths had argued the stand qualified because it would occupy only one floor of the barn, but Judge Susan Souder said a single floor in a building did not qualify as a structure.

Now, in its opinion earlier this month, the appeals court said the initial Board of Appeals verdict was correct in finding that the stand would not hurt the health, safety or welfare of the community.

"It's a very important decision, not only for the Smiths, but for the agricultural community of northern Baltimore County," said Lawrence E. Schmidt, the Smith's zoning attorney. "Obviously with the economy and other pressures on farms, particularly on family farms, this really helps them sell directly to the public, which helps them economically."

The farm also relies on sales to restaurants and grocery stores. But "it's an economic benefit to them to eliminate the middleman and go directly to the consumer," Schmidt said.

Schmidt said he had not heard whether the neighbors planned to ask the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, to hear the case.

The opponents' attorney, Towson lawyer Michael McCann, could not be reached on Sunday.

Schmidt said he felt confident Springfield Farm could move ahead with its barn.

"It's a tool they can use to help the farm sustain itself," he said. "That goes for any farmer that produces crops. The Smiths had no intention of being Wegmans or a distribution center. They want to sell product directly to the consumer."

Webb said the family has spent so much time and money deflecting the many appeals, they now need to sit down together and determine when it will be financially feasible to move forward.

On Sunday, customers came and went, usually one or two at a time, some carrying small coolers and many of whom Webb knew by name. Customers peered into cases containing fresh and frozen chicken, beef, lamb, pork and turkey. Cartons of eggs sat piled on two long tables in the middle of the store.

Bob Stalick, who moved to the area several months ago, stopped in for milk, eggs and meat as he does every weekend.

"I know where my food is coming from," Stalick said. "I can see where my eggs are coming from."

In a room behind the store, Webb's brother-in-law, farm manager Doug Lafferty, lowered baskets of freshly collected eggs in a sudsy tub, washing them by hand.

He said the Court of Special Appeals decision "made us feel like what we are doing is right. It reinforced that."

Lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

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