The operator of the Howard County Living Farm Heritage Museum has been ordered by the county to vacate its leased property in West Friendship by Nov. 27.
In an Aug. 29 letter to John Frank, president of the Antique Farm Machinery Club, the new director of Howard County Recreation & Parks wrote the group must vacate the 39.49-acre portion of West Friendship Park it has leased from the county for 18 years.
“The County has determined that such termination is in the best interest of the County,” county rec and parks director Nick Mooneyhan states in the letter. “Per the Lease Agreement, Tenant shall remove all debris, equipment, furnishings, and supplies owned or placed by the Tenant on the Leased Property, and on other property outside of the Leased Property in West Friendship Park, within (90) days of this written notice.
The lease agreement between the county and the club was entered into on July 21, 2005 and extends to 2030.
Founded by a collection of local farmers in 1995, the Antique Farm Machinery Club has operated the Howard County Living Farm Heritage Museum in West Friendship next door to the Howard County Fairgrounds since 2005. The museum has grown to include more than 20 buildings, various crops and farming equipment dating from the 1600s through the 1960s.
At the museum, visitors can step inside recreations of a general store, one-room schoolhouse and sawmill, among other structures, to get a glimpse at life in Howard before the introduction of electricity. The grounds also offer a variety of hands-on activities, from shucking corn to taking lessons in the blacksmith’s shop.
The museum doesn’t have a permanent staff, relying on club volunteers. The club also rents out the grounds to local groups, hosts field trips and maintains more than 6 miles of nature trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding.
Frank of Ellicott City, told Baltimore Sun Media earlier this year that while Howard’s farming community has shrunk in size, it remains tight-knit and continues to find ways to innovate. Farming and agriculture is Maryland’s fifth largest economic driver and there are still 335 farms located throughout the county, according to the Howard County Economic Development Authority.
“Our philosophy is community based, community built and community supported,” Frank said in June.
Mooneyhan gave no explanation for why the club has been ordered to vacate the property. A call to the farm museum went unanswered, and the group posted on its Facebook page late last month that it could not comment because it is a legal matter.
Anna Hunter, superintendent of public information and marketing with the Howard County Department of Recreation & Parks, issued the following statement by email: “The Department of Recreation and Parks has been involved in regular communications with the Howard County Antique Farm Machinery Club, Inc. during the past two years to address a number of the County’s issues with the physical improvements on site as well as programmatic activities undertaken by the Club, with unsatisfactory results. Consequently, after much deliberation and consideration of its best interests, in order to facilitate the much-needed improvements at the West Friendship Park, the County has elected to terminate the lease with the Club.”
Hunter declined to comment further on what physical improvements the county desired or the activities that were considered unsatisfactory.
“The County is committed to making these required improvements and is dedicated to ensuring that the Park is safe and enjoyable for all Howard County residents and visitors,” she said. “We appreciate the concern of our community members and ask for your patience through this transition.”
Hunter’s statement also was sent by a spokesperson from the office of County Executive Calvin Ball, when he was asked for comment on the matter.
District 5 County Council member David Yungmann said he has been responding to residents who are concerned about the decision to terminate the lease.
“I’m trying to get the parties together for a meeting, but it’s not as simple now that attorneys are involved and everyone is on guard,” Yungmann said. “Unfortunately, the farm museum folks never reached out to me until a few days before the termination letter went out. I’m trying to handle that with all parties involved in the same discussion so I’m not stuck with a he said/she said situation and no clear path for resolution.”
Yungmann said he would like to see an outcome that supports the county’s farming heritage, agriculture operations and the residents who have enjoyed the museum. He said he supports an outcome that includes robust agriculture education, trails, open space and active farming on the property, and he said he has been assured by other county officials that this is the county’s intention.
“I take additional comfort that the parcels which comprise the property are in the Maryland Environmental Preservation and Environmental Trust programs, so the allowable uses on the property are limited by state law,” Yungmann said.
Yungmann has been telling concerned residents that he will fight to keep the property focused on farming and agriculture-related education and activities.
Missy Zook Grimes, of Thurmont, is among a group of concerned area residents who posted on the club’s Facebook page following the announcement. Her husband, Rick, was born and raised in West Friendship, she said.
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“We have been lifetime members of the museum and have participated in most all of the events they offered when we lived close by,” Grimes said. “When we learned of the termination of the lease we were heartbroken.”
Grimes said members worked “tirelessly” for years to build and preserve the antique machinery and artifacts at the museum. She said her son, Scott, completed his Eagle Scout project at the property, constructing a fire ring and firewood shed there in 2012.
“Our feelings went from sadness to anger knowing the powers that be behind this weren’t doing it for the good of the county,” Grimes said. “We truly hope something can be worked out to preserve this gem of a museum.”