Harbin Farms employees recently began stacking large pumpkins on display, in addition to their second most popular seasonal items — mums and a wide variety of apples.
Kimberly Taylor, who runs the produce stand with her husband, Michael, and her uncle, had worried that a year and a half dispute over zoning might have prevented the fall display from going up.
The stand has been at Route 99 and Old Mill Road in Ellicott City since 1958, when it was part of a larger family farm. But after most of the land was sold to developers, county zoning regulations wouldn't permit the family to continue selling produce on property not zoned for commercial use. The county's approval last week to allow it could have implications for future farm stand zoning decisions.
"Prior to Harbin coming in with the zoning amendment in 2010 you needed to sell produce harvested from your farm" to operate a produce stand, said Kimberley Flowers, the deputy director of Howard's planning and zoning. She said she doesn't know of any other produce stand in the county not operating on farmland, but she added that zoning enforcement is largely complaint-driven.
Ralph Ballman, who lives a few hundred feet from Harbins on Rose Trail, worried that allowing the produce stand to operate in the neighborhood could open the door to other commercial businesses popping up around his neighborhood, which sits a few miles away from the strip malls and drive-thrus on the Baltimore National Pike corridor.
Harbins is "not going to be a little stand in the trees but something you see on Route 40," said Ballman, who led the opposition against the stand.
Despite his concerns, the Howard County Hearing Board Examiner permitted Harbin Farms to continue to operate the produce stand, setting a precedent for future produce stand owners who might opt to part with their farmland as Taylor's family had.
Before, produce stands were "only an accessory to farming," said Cindy Hamilton, chief, public service and zoning administration division in Howard. But now, she said the county might see more similar applications for conditional use as farmers become more enticed to sell off their land.
"The trail has kind of already been blazed," by Harbin Farms, Hamilton said. "It could be something we see more of," she said.
Under Howard zoning regulations, farmers are permitted to have a produce stand on their property, but if the property loses that zoning distinction, then the owners lose the ability to use the property to sell produce.
The dispute over the Harbin stand began after Taylor's grandmother sold off the majority of the farm land to developers. The family had farmed the property until 13 years ago, when Taylor said the silver queen corn crops were overrun with deer as a result of new development in the area.
The majority of the property was sold in 2006, but the family kept a section where they could continue to sell produce throughout the year, as well as flower baskets in the spring, fall pumpkins and Christmas trees in December — products from other local farms.
Taylor said the family was unaware of the new restrictions until a handful of residents raised questions about the stand. When Taylor learned they were no longer permitted to sell produce on the property they pursued an amendment to the zoning regulations.
In addition to the application for the conditional use, to make an exception to the property, Hamilton said the Taylors were also subjected to suggestions by the county's planning board, including additional parking to prevent a backup of traffic, to a "food prep" building, for carving up watermelons and other produce.
"We're looking at a bunch of different stuff," Hamilton said, whether a property will fit in with the neighborhood.
But for Ballman, who lives nearby and opposed the stand, those recommendations for additional parking and buildings, sounded more like expansion over improvement.
During Monday's hearing, he questioned David T. Dows, a landscape architect hired by the Taylors to make sure their new plans are in accordance with county codes.
Ballman asked about access from Old Mill Road, saying there might be an issue with traffic, but Dows countered that he had checked with county officials and the fire department about potential traffic issues.
Ballman also raised questions over the sheds being used as primary structures, and how much of the property would be used toward displays in an effort to label the property as a more commercial use structure. Dows said 2,000 square feet of the space would be indoors, while 13,000 would be considered "display space" for the roadside stand, which is normally limited to 300 square feet.
At the end of the hearing, Taylor's husband, Michael argued that many of the upgrades that Ballman feared gave the stand a more commercial feel, were required by county codes, such as the additional parking spaces.
"They are bending over backward" to accommodate the county and residents, said Rhonda Fawcett, a regular customer, who lives in Columbia and testified in support of Harbins at Monday's meeting.
Several other customers stood up to provide emotional testimony supporting Harbins.
Dr. Amy Horneman, who lives on Queensland Drive in Enclave at Ellicott Station, said she bought her home in the 55 and plus community partly because of the produce stand.
"It's one of the reasons I bought there" after she moved from her home in Freeland, Md., she said.
Despite Ballman's fears about what the stand might be becoming as bathrooms, additional parking and a storage facility are added, in her plea to the hearing examiner Monday, Taylor said she wants to keep the stand's rustic aesthetic. "We feel a produce stand is a wonderful alternative to a grocery store."