Agreeing with a county hearing examiner's opinion from May of last year, the five-member Howard County Board of Appeals voted unanimously Monday, Dec. 12 to grant a Woodbine couple's request to host weddings and other events on their 145-acre farm off Jennings Chapel Road in the county's rural west.
The board granted the couple's request to host 25 outdoor events per year with a maximum of 150 guests per event, as long as they met the following conditions: created a Web site where an event schedule is posted; provided traffic monitors at the farm entrance at the beginning and end of each event; and, complied with fire department requirements by creating a pull-off area for emergency vehicles at the farm.
In a separate vote, the board also granted the couple's request to open a small, restricted-hours antique shop in an existing structure on the farm.
The decisions came after a year of hearings and more than five years after Maxine and Robert Walker, who currently operate a horse-boarding business and host an annual fox hunt on their farm, first started pursuing approval for the plans. The decisions also came despite widespread opposition from the Walkers' neighbors.
When board Chairman Jim Walsh concluded the hearing late Monday night with a rap of his gavel, Maxine Walker patted her lawyer, Alexander Adams, on the arm, then kissed him on the cheek. She then walked over to her husband, seated nearby, to make sure he had heard the vote and to share a triumphant smile.
"I'm delighted," she said moments later. "I hope we can put everything behind us and we can move forward and the neighborhood can heal."
But the board's approval caused dismay among many of the Walkers' neighbors and fellow farmers at the hearing, who, with the help of attorney William Erskine, had appealed hearing examiner Michele LeFaivre's May decision to allow the weddings.
Those neighbors can appeal the board's decision as well, which would send the case to circuit court, but many seemed defeated after the hearing.
Katherine Willson, who operates a horse farm next door to the Walkers, said the Walkers' plans are "totally in conflict with the rural nature on Jennings Chapel" and that the board "has no understanding of what it is to live out in the country."
Willson said she worries that having loud wedding music until 10 p.m. next door will disrupt her routine of waking at 5 a.m. to feed her horses. In addition, she said, big white tents, a lot of cars and portable toilets will disrupt the scenic nature of the community.
"This has made a mockery and a joke out of the whole farm preservation program," she said, noting she and other neighbors have already given up development rights on their properties in order to maintain their farming community. "This is just opening a can of worms on one of the most preserved roads in the county."
Two different pictures
During the hearing, Adams and Erskine
painted vastly different pictures of the situation, with Adams saying neighbors had used "hyperbole and speculations" to confuse the dialogue on the issue and Erskine saying the proposed uses of the Walkers' farm clearly constituted a form of development and should be regulated as such.
Both attorneys talked about traffic concerns for cars coming in and out of the farm.
Adams said the success of the Walkers' annual fox hunt showed there are no problems.
"This site has already been tested, if you will," he said.
Erskine said Jennings Chapel was equivalent to "Howard County's Grand Canyon" and should be preserved as farmland "in perpetuity."
Erskine also said the Walkers had not provided adequate answers to a long list of questions he'd posed, such as how noise and light from late weddings would impact the neighbors and how many tents they would erect during events.
Adams repeatedly noted that most events will not come close to the limit of 150 guests.
The board, in its deliberations, largely sided with Adams and the Walkers, downplaying the impact of venue lights, saying the county's existing noise ordinances are enough to control noise and rebuffing Erskine's assertion that the Walkers' plans amounted to development of their farm.
"Nice try, Mr. Erskine, but I guess we didn't buy it," Walsh said after he and the other board members agreed the plans did not constitute development.
The Walkers have repeatedly said that revenue from the new operations will be put toward restoring and preserving the farm.
After the hearing, Willson said she and other neighbors would have to discuss appealing the decision to the court with Erskine.
Regardless of what happens, she said her mind is set on the Walkers' plans.
"It's going to destroy our property values. It's going to destroy our way of life," Willson said.
Court challenge or not, Maxine Walker said she likely won't start hosting events for at least a few months, after she's created the Web site and lined up party groups.
Even then, things will start slowly, she said.
"We don't expect to get 25 events. It's going to take a while to build the business," she said. "If we started with three or four a year or so, we'd be very pleased."