"That gets to be more of a commercial use," he said.

He said smaller farms have been bolstered by "buy local" trends and community-supported agriculture programs, especially those near population centers and larger potential customer bases.

Such farmers are "trying to make lemonade out of lemons," using their proximity to customers to make money, said Susan G. Summers, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Farm Bureau.

In Howard County, Ted Mariani, a member of Concerned Citizens of Western Howard County, said many farmers have looked to for ways to turn a profit on smaller plots. His group advocates for land preservation in rural areas.

"What has happened over the last decade, some of the farms in the county have decided the typical grain farming or raising cattle are very difficult," he said, given competition from larger operations.

He said he knows several farmers who must rent land from other property owners to make a profit. Another farmer wants to open a creamery instead of selling milk to Pennsylvania for processing, but that could be considered a commercial operation.

And in more heavily developed Ellicott City, the owners of the 540-acre Elioak Farm also operate Enchanted Forest storybook attractions to help supplement income on the land where development is restricted because the land was placed under agricultural preservation in the 1980s.

"We've been trying to push value-added activities to existing farms," said Mariani, including a council measure to relax zoning restrictions on beekeeping earlier this year.

In May, the Howard County Council approved a contentious measure allowing farmers to establish wineries, but many residents expressed concerns over traffic, crowds and having large commercial operations on their land.

Despite an earlier county approval for the zoning change on the Walkers' property, neighbors in Woodbine fought back, taking the issue before the local Board of Appeals.

During hearings, neighbors testified against the proposal, citing disturbances such as increased traffic on narrow country roads, noise from DJs, and general concerns from a business operating out of residential and agricultural areas. Others complained about the potential for bright lights, large outdoor party tents and rowdy guests partying late into the night.

"I never thought anything like this would happen," Maxine Walker said. "I had just thought it was beautiful, and I thought we could share it with people," she said.

Walker said she expects mostly daytime bookings because "the beauty of this place is in the daytime." When neighbors raised concerns over heavy crowds coming into the neighborhood, she said she's had a few inquiries about event bookings, but they've been for smaller events, such as children's birthday parties.

Each year, the couple host several hundred people for the Iron Bridge Hounds fox hunt, they said, without any problems. Walker said some of the neighbors even join in.

Closing arguments before the Board of Appeals are scheduled for Dec.12. If the Walkers or their neighbors choose to appeal the outcome of that decision, the issue will be heard in court.

Despite the challenge, Maxine Walker said her effort to restore the rustic property to its former glory has not wavered. And whatever the result of her own zoning case, she said, "The neighborhood's going to change."

She added, "We could live here comfortably as it is, but we want to continue to make improvements. You get so much satisfaction out of it."


  • Text NEWS to 70701 to get Baltimore Sun local news text alerts