Business is slow for Woodbine farm owners hoping to host weddings

While a work crew pounds in stakes for a wedding tent they're erecting on Maxine and Bob Walker's Woodbine farm, the Walkers are in their den explaining to a visitor why the tent — and more specifically, the money it will bring in — is needed.

"We renovated the barn," Maxine Walker said.

"I bet we spent almost half a million dollars on it," Bob Walker put in.

"Even this house — we put a new roof on it," Maxine Walker continued. "We gutted this room, we gutted the kitchen. Even the floor.

"We've planted 31 trees since we've been here — and they were big trees," she added. "When you start taking on projects like that, it really does add up."

Nearly two years ago, the Walkers won a bitter battle with some of their neighbors for the right to host weddings and other outdoor events on their historic 146-acre farm, Harwood Farm, located off Jennings Chapel Road in the heart of rural Howard County.

The Walkers, who bought Harwood Farm in 1994, said they needed the money to maintain and restore the property, which includes a house built in 1840 and several other buildings.

But neighbors opposed their request for a conditional use, arguing that the noise, lights and traffic from the events would destroy the quiet, rural character of their neighborhood.

The headline-making debate raged for nearly six years. Finally, in December 2011, the county Board of Appeals agreed with the Walkers and voted unanimously to give them the right to host 25 outdoor events a year, with several conditions. The board also granted their request to open a small antique shop in an existing building on the farm.

The approval was granted under a 2006 law intended to help the owners of historic farmland supplement their income.

Now, nearly two years after the board decision, the Walkers' wedding business is getting off the ground — barely. The wedding they hosted Saturday, Sept. 28, was only the third since they won permission to do so. This weekend, they will host another event, a political fundraiser for GOP state delegate candidate Frank Mirabile, and they are booked for another wedding for next May.

And that's it.

"It's slow," Maxine Walker said. "It's taking off slow. I had hoped it would move along faster."

"It will," put in husband Robert. "It will."

Fear of change

Maxine Walker, who worked for years in the Reagan White House, is reluctant to talk about the divisive, headline-making battle over the couple's request, during which neighbors lined the winding Jennings Chapel Road with protest signs.

She attributes the opposition to fear of change.

"People do not want change," she said. "That's what this was all about. And there's always going to be change."

She also said the ill feelings and wounds from the zoning battle have been healing.

"All the signs have come down," she added. "People who were protesting against us have told people that were for us that they've sat in their backyard and listened to the music, and it's not like they thought it would be. … I just don't hear people making derogatory remarks."

Neighbor Paul Shoffett, who testified against allowing the weddings during the county hearings, has since been hired by the Walkers to drive a horse-drawn carriage for a couple of the events.

"The way I see it, we live in a wonderful country, and when people have differences of opinion, we have a process that we use to resolve those disputes," said Shoffett, who lives about two miles away.  "We went through that process, and there were a lot of deep emotions around it. But it's over and I respect the process and the decision, and I'll honor it."

He added: "Bob and Maxine have been so gracious to everyone up and down the road. I don't have any bad feelings."

But that sentiment is not universally shared on Jennings Chapel Road.

"I will never come to peace with it," said Sandra Lutes, who lives across Jennings Chapel Road from the Walkers.  "This already has disrupted the peace of mind for those who live here."

Lutes said she can hear the music from the Harwood Farm events from her front porch — "and I'm hard of hearing. I can even hear conversations. The county just never understood that in the country, sound carries a long way."

Bob Styer, who can see the Walkers' property from his own farm across the road, said the wedding venue is the first commercial venture allowed on Jennings Farm Road other than agriculture. As such, he said, it sets a bad, unwelcome precedent.

"To introduce something commercial to a scenic road like this — it just doesn't fit," said Styer, who has lived in his home for 31 years. "And the other killer is the frequency.

"If they could book it — and it's a big if — they could have one of these parties just about every weekend throughout the spring and summer and fall. And that, to me, is a problem."

Lutes worried that the handful of events so far is only a prelude of what's to come.

"I think it's just a slow start," she said. "People are out here because they've come out to the country to live a quiet, rural life, and it's not happening any more — and this is just the beginning."

Business to grow?

The Walkers would agree with their critics on one thing: The handful of weddings so far might be just the beginning.

Maxine Walker said she has started to advertise on wedding websites and interest has picked up.

"I think it will happen," she said of an increase in events. "I have had a lot of inquiries, but it's expensive to have a wedding of this nature. Everything's rental. They have to rent the tents, the table, the chairs, the restroom trailer. It adds up. …

"But there's been a lot of interest. And everyone that comes out says it's beautiful."

Walker, who runs the farm event business out of a small room off the side of the house, said they still have plenty of work to do on their historic property, and the money from events would help.

"The property is so beautiful, and it costs a lot of money to maintain it," she said. "I want to be able to generate income so that we could continue to fix up the house."

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