Over the past 20 years, it's been hit or miss as to whether the Mullinix Brothers Partnership has made enough money farming to cover their annual $50,000 property tax bill.
"A lot of years the equipment (business) has supported our (farming) hobby," Mark Mullinix said. "They tell me a hobby is something you do without making money."
Mullinix, along with his brothers Michael and Steve, are part of the fifth generation of Mullinixes to operate the family farm, which has been in the Mullinix family name since 1889. The brothers operate a farm equipment business, in addition to farming corn, wheat, barley and soybeans and raising hay in Dayton and Mt. Airy.
As they struggle to make a profit, the Mullinixes want to do something heretofore unheard of in Maryland: terminate an easement with the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation, a program aimed at promoting agriculture and preserving farmland.
By terminating the easement, the Mullinixes would be able to develop their property in any way that the zoning allows — which, they say, would give them more flexibility in how they could use about 490 of their more than 600 acres.
The Mullinixes are the first farmers in Maryland to seek a termination from the 35-year-old state easement program.
"We want the freedom to do some things that we can make money with," Mullinix said.
Their property is currently zoned rural conservation, which makes agriculture and farming a priority while allowing low density and clustered residential development.
But in order to be granted the termination, the Mullinixes have to prove that it is not possible to profitably farm in any way, including aquaculture, crops, livestock or tree harvesting, according to Carol West, executive director of the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation.
West doesn't believe their effort will succeed, because, she said, the farm does not appear to meet the criteria proving the land is no longer profitable for farming.
"I don't believe in my heart that this one will be approved," she said.
Under the easement program, created in 1977, the state pays farmers so much per acre. In exchange, the farmers are barred from developing their land for commercial, industrial and residential uses.
More than 284,000 acres have been preserved by the foundation on nearly 2,100 Maryland farms, representing a $610.8 million investment by the state. In Howard County, the state has made a public investment of $5.5 million on 3,970 acres encompassing 31 farms.
The Mullinixes have been paid more than $560,000 for the three properties on which they are seeking to terminate the easement.
Any easements approved prior to 2004 have the option of applying for termination after 25 years. The first of the Mullinix easements reached the 25-year mark in 2006.
Hearing Nov. 15
County and state agencies will begin considering the Mullinix request with a public hearing Thursday, Nov. 15, but West said it will be difficult to prove the land is not profitable through farming.
"That's a very high bar, it's intentionally high," she said. "We don't want these to be bought back."
Joy Levy, Howard County administrator of the agricultural land preservation program, agreed that the bar is set high.
The state review process includes a recommendation from the county, which the county has until the beginning of February to finish, Levy said.
The county's easement review policy, created in 2007, considers the applicant's effects on preservation, growth management and agricultural economic development. The policy also considers the impact on protected lands in the vicinity and asks for an evaluation on the property's value.
Not only will the Mullinixes have to prove farming is not profitable on their land, they will also have to pay the state the calculated easement value of the property. Easement value is calculated by subtracting the agricultural value of a property from its fair market value.
Howard County has the highest per acre easement value in the state, according to West.
The Mullinixes will have to pay the easement value of today, not what the value was when they agreed to easements more than 25 years ago, she said.
By being granted a termination from the easement, the family could sell some of the land to a developer. But Mullinix said that isn't why the family is seeking a termination.
"You always say 'No' until somebody starts waving a lot of money," he said regarding the possibility. "Right now, we have no plans to go anywhere."
Mullinix said he would like to see the property stay in the family and to continue farming, but that may not be possible.
"They (family) see how hard we work and the little returns we get back," he said.
The state preservation foundation has until April 1 to make a decision on the Mullinix application, which was accepted Oct. 1, West said.
Despite the challenges they face, Mullinix said he is hopeful the family will prevail.
"We'll let it all ride and let the courts decide," he said.
The Nov. 15 hearing will be held in the dining hall at the Howard County Fairgrounds, beginning at 6 p.m.