The farmhouse, barn and outbuildings on Bel Air's Eva-Mar Farm were razed last week, another step toward the eventual development of the 150-acre property.
The plan to turn the farm into a continuing care retirement community and single family home development had little to do with the demolition which, though it would have happened eventually, was accelerated because of ongoing vandalism, a lawyer representing the trust that owns the property said.
People living in the neighborhoods along Route 543 and Prospect Mill Road that sprang up around the farm over the past three decades have raised objections to the development plan for Eva-Mar, with some questioning why Harford County didn't show interest in the site for a park or agricultural preservation.
There was interest in the latter, according to the head of the county's agricultural preservation program, who said the farm's late owners, Lela and Eugene Probst, both discussed with him the possibility of selling the farm's development rights to the county.
The farm's residential zoning was the sticking point, explained Bill Amoss Jr., who runs the program, which by law can accept only property zoned for agriculture.
Eva-Mar was zoned for residential development in 1982, through no doing of the Probsts, or so it appears. Only they could have undone that, however, but it didn't happen during their lifetimes, Amoss noted.
Buildings come down
Lela and Eugene Probst, who died in 2008 and 2011, respectively, lived at Eva-Mar from shortly after their marriage in late 1942 until their deaths. They didn't have any children.
A trust set up by Mr. Probst before he died owns the 150-acre property. Mr. Probst's brother, who lives in Fawn Grove, Pa., is the trustee. The trust plans to sell the land to Elm Street Development, headquartered in McLean, Va., which will build 144 single family homes and sell a little more than a third of the farm to Presbyterian Home of Maryland, which will develop and operate the proposed 514-unit continuing care retirement community.
Bel Air attorney Greg Szoka, who represents the trust, said the house and farm buildings would have been removed before development took place, but the schedule was pushed up because of the continuing vandalism, including graffiti and fires.
"If those structures were going to be attractive to people who wanted to vandalize them, we needed to take prompt action," Szoka explained.
Most of the work had been done by Thursday, when the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company went to the property to extinguish some of the burning rubble which had been set on fire by the contractor.
Though Thursday's call was related to the demolition, BAVFC Chief Edward Hopkins said firefighters have gone on fire calls at Eva-Mar numerous times in recent years.
"I've been on several calls out there myself," Hopkins said Friday. "I can't say if people were trying to deliberately burn down the buildings, but we did find evidence of campfires and bonfires and one fire on the ramp leading up to the barn. Some of this was probably from kids in the neighborhood."
Because they had been vacant since the owners deaths, the house and buildings had attracted considerable vandalism, according to Hopkins, who said all of the structures were in terrible condition and had become an "unnecessary risk" for responding firefighters.
"From a safety standpoint I'm glad they are down," he added.
There are a number of ways owners of farmland can preserve their property from development, including selling off the building rights to the county or placing it in some sort of perpetual conservation easement that usually provides certain tax advantages.
Amoss recalls having several conversations with Eva-Mar's owners about the county's programs, including a few over the couple's kitchen table. He said he last talked to Mr. Probst sometime after his wife died.
"They needed to down zone to get agricultural zoning; we can't take a property into the program that has residential zoning," Amoss explained last week. "They understood this, and I told them how they could go about it, either through a piecemeal or comprehensive rezoning."