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."
"Any big piece I'm going to try to get in" the ag preservation program, he added.
Under a piecemeal rezoning, the property owner applies to the Harford County Council's zoning examiners who review the request, hold a hearing and then determine if the request meets legal requirements. Ultimately, the county council can review the case and make the final decision, regardless of what its examiner concludes.
The comprehensive process takes place roughly every eight years and allows landowners across the county to apply directly to the county council for zoning changes after they are reviewed by county planners.
Receiving a requested rezoning is not, however, a given through either process.
Maryland law has long established that piecemeal rezonings can be granted because of either a mistake in assigning the property's original zoning or a substantial change in its immediate neighborhood. Eva-Mar had become surrounded by large residential developments since it was rezoned in 1982, and water and sewer lines were sitting right along the property's Route 543 frontage.
The farm had basically become a hole in a doughnut sprinkled with hundreds of homes, as a look at a current aerial map clearly shows. The neighborhood isn't agricultural any more, hasn't been for years.
Proving a mistake in the zoning would likely have required some exhaustive sleuthing or a judgment call.
County Planning and Zoning Director Pete Gutwald confirmed the property was rezoned from A1 to R1 as part of the comprehensive review of 1982, a raucous, politically charged process that directly led to the rapid development of many areas of the county in the 1980s and early 1990s. Amyclae Estates and Tudor Manor, Eva-Mar's immediate neighbors to the south and north, respectively, both had their genesis in the 1982 comprehensive.
Back then, the county could have comprehensively rezoned a property without the owner being notified, Gutwald noted. The law was changed in 1987 to require prior notification. Today, the property owner must request a change or agree to one beforehand.
There is no conclusive evidence the Probsts had any involvement in the zoning change, according to Amoss and some other people who knew the couple. One person said they seemed surprised when they learned about it some years later.
Regardless of what happened nearly 30 years earlier, nothing was ever done about changing Eva-Mar's zoning back to agricultural.
The last comprehensive process began in late 2008 and concluded in 2009. Mrs. Probst died in May 2008, and her husband created the trust that owns the farm a few months later. There was never any request to rezone the property, Amoss said.
"It's a productive site, it certainly would have qualified" for ag preservation, Amoss said.
Eva-Mar has continued to be farmed by a tenant. Szoka said in a prior interview the farm will be planted in soybeans this spring, under the expectation the development deal won't be completed by then.
Preserved, the farm would have been a great location for so-called value-added, niche farming products – cut flowers, nursery stock, cheeses, custom meats, ice cream – that many of Harford's remaining farmers have turned to in order to keep going, Amoss said.
"There are a lot of customers that close; it certainly could have been profitable," he said.
James Fielder, a onetime resident of Tudor Manor who became friendly with the Probsts, said he and the couple had talked about preserving the farm.
"I spent a lot of time walking over there, looking at the deer, and I looked out for the back end of the farm for them," Fielder, who recently became Bel Air's town administrator, said. "They loved those peacocks," one of the many varieties of fowl the couple kept.
"They knew my background," said Fielder, who grew up on a farm a few miles farther east of Eva-Mar. "We did talk about preservation, what they might be able to do."
Fielder said he doesn't know what the Probsts may have decided or why, but he said he understands from personal experience that such decisions are neither easy nor necessarily popular in the world at large.
Last year, he and his siblings began the process to subdivide a portion of their 255-acre farm for 27 single family homesites. Some people living in similar subdivisions nearby weren't happy about it.
"We hear people say all the time they don't want to see farmland developed, but they also have to also remember the farm is the farmer's 401K," he said, noting every family's circumstances will be different.