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Highland farmer's fire trucks allowed to stay

More than 100 people filled the largest chamber of Howard County's executive office building in Ellicott City Thursday night to testify on a zoning conditional use request, but unlike many who come before Hearing Examiner Michele LeFaivre, they weren't there to fight against the proposal.

Instead, every single one turned out to support Highland resident Scott Shearer's campaign to save the fire truck collection he stores in two of the white dairy barns on his small farm.

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After more than a year of navigating county zoning code and stumbling over technicalities, Shearer's simple wish found a not-so-simple conclusion Sept. 11.

Under the code, Shearer's property, Hi-Land Farm, which sits near the intersection of Mink Hollow and Highland roads, isn't technically allowed to house the dozen trucks he has acquired and restored over the years. Back hoes or trailers wouldn't be a problem – the rural plot has no limits on the amount of farming equipment it contains – but an engine like the 1954 White Elephant, Shearer's favorite, is not typically permitted.

Shearer spent months going back and forth with the county's Department of Planning and Zoning, who initially said he would have to bring his barns under compliance – which would mean getting rid of the trucks – or face a daily fine of up to $500.

In the spring, DPZ staff offered another, more creative solution: designating part of Shearer's property as a museum.

The plan approved Thursday by the hearing examiner will require Shearer to display his fire trucks to the public once a year. He's selected Highland Day, a neighborhood celebration that takes places this year on Oct. 4, as the date of his open house.

Many of Shearer's neighbors have already seen the trucks: Within the tight-knit Highland community, his passion is well-known and embraced. Residents told LeFaivre that he was a good neighbor they'd like to keep around.

"This farm, this installation, is actually an asset to the community, and that's why we're so anxious to preserve it," said Dan O'Leary, a Highland resident and president of the Greater Highland Community Association. "You'd be hard-pressed to find other properties that have less impact on adjacent properties than this one does."

Next-door neighbor Anne Cristaldi said the farm has vastly improved since Shearer purchased it five years ago.

"It's a marked improvement," she testified. "The fencing was in disrepair, barbed wire rusted and the fields were 10 feet of weeds and grass. Mr. Shearer has really improved the property aesthetically, and really maintains it well."

Najib Roshan, a land surveyor who drew up plans of Shearer's property for the zoning case, said the buildings on Shearer's lot "are so well maintained and this property is so well groomed. Most of our residential properties are not."

Neighbor after neighbor echoed O'Leary, Cristaldi and Roshan at the hearing. Some said the horses and cattle he keeps on his property are an enjoyable sight to see when they're at pasture.

Shearer's father, Gregory Shearer, was one of the last to testify. He said the people gathered at the hearing were "as much neighbors as friends" to his son.

"Scott has a background, for his whole adult life, of restoring fire trucks and saving family history and so on, and I think his stewardship at Hi-Land Farm will continue if he's successful," the older Shearer said.

With just a few words from LeFaivre, Shearer's saga came to an end. In a rare ruling from the bench, the hearing examiner gave her approval to the museum as well as a variance that brings some of the property's setback violations into compliance.

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The crowd cheered and gave a round of boisterous applause.

"Oftentimes," LeFaivre told Shearer after the room had quieted down, the cases she handles are "a battle between the petitioner and the community. This one gives me such enormous joy to grant, and I'm tearing up as we speak."

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