Development plan irks North Balto. Co.


Northern Baltimore County is a place apart, a land of rolling green hills, horse farms and gentlemen's estates.

Its residents come from the far side of Maryland and the other side of the world, from the City of Baltimore and its suburbs of Towson and Cockeysville. A few were fortunate enough to grow up there. But all have found their little piece of heaven in the northern valleys of Baltimore County.

Now, they say, the devil of development is knocking at their gate.

Valley residents are battling a proposal by Hayfields Farm's new owners, the Mangione family, to build houses and a golf course at the farm, which the Marquis de Lafayette once honored with a silver tankard in 1824 as the best-managed in Maryland.

At stake is much more than the historic farm, most of which sits between Shawan and Western Run roads just west of Interstate 83. Hayfields' strategic location, at the eastern edge of the valleys that spread northwest from the Baltimore Beltway in a blanket of affluence, makes it a barrier to Hunt Valley and the county's urban core. If it is devel- oped, some valley residents concede, they will subdivide their own land, adding to the checkerboard of development.

That would be a dramatic change for the Valleys -- Greenspring, Caves, Worthington and Belfast -- which have been protected by the most restrictive rural zoning in Maryland.

The battle lines have been drawn. On one side are the economic interests -- landowners trying to get the most for their property and meet the demands of a growing, golf-starved county. On the other, farmers and other residents pleading to preserve a less-hurried way of life.

"Once that barrier has been let down, it would be like a cancer growing and coming across the valley," says Betty Fenwick, whose family owns 745 acres west of Hayfields. She says family members have agreed that if Hayfields is developed, they, too, will sell their land for development.

Says Barbara Campbell, whose grandfather was the first black landowner in the Hayfields area and who still attends Gough United Methodist Church there: "If the Hayfields is developed and that changes the valley, something will be lost that can never be replaced."

The uproar was triggered by developer Nicholas B. Mangione's plan to build 50 high-priced houses and a golf course on Hayfields. Mr. Mangione, who built the Turf Valley resort north of Columbia, is awaiting county approvals for the plan. Without those approvals, which would include a rezoning, he could only build 40 houses on the 474-acre tract.

But residents -- whether they consider the Valleys a lifestyle or a livelihood -- are ready to fight. Led by the Valleys Planning Council, they're looking to raise $100,000 for the legal battle. Some even talk of spending millions to buy the farm.

Eva Bryan is one of the newest recruits in the fight.

She and her husband, Cedrick, head of nephrology at Maryland General Hospital, typify the new wealth in the Valleys -- where the median household income is about $80,000, twice the countywide figure.

Mrs. Bryan had always yearned for a home that would remind her of the estate where she grew up in her native Australia.

Six years ago, when the Bryans were living in Baltimore, she found her dream on 14 acres overlooking Western Run Road near Butler -- about two miles from Hayfields.

They gradually expanded their modest, two-bedroom house into airy rooms and long porches that overlook patios and terraced gardens.

What's at stake now, she says, is not just the prospect of traffic and noise. She fears losing the contentment found after years of searching.

"It's not greed or selfishness," she says, at the picnic table on the front patio. "It's just finding something you really, really love. . . . It's an amazing cure for homesickness."

Much of the land in the Valleys is protected from intense development by government fiat. For example, more than 40,000 acres of valley land is in a rural preservation district that allows only one house per 50 acres, according to the county Office of Planning and Zoning. On thousands more acres, zoning allows one house per five acres.

Such restrictions have helped to limit development on Hayfields.

The farm helped introduce red-and-white Hereford cattle to the United States. And it was the farm of John Merryman, a Confederate sympathizer arrested for treason and imprisoned at Fort McHenry after he burned a Parkton bridge to keep Union troops from moving south.

The last of the Merryman family to own Hayfields was John Merryman Franklin. His widow, Emily, sold the farm in 1975 to a developer, who proposed a 1,600-unit housing community.

Area residents opposed that plan, and the county repeatedly has rejected zoning changes needed for high-density development.

The proposal of Mr. Mangione -- whose family bought the farm in 1986 -- is more modest, and would help meet the county's quest for more upscale homes and golf courses.

County officials, aware that local income tax revenues are flat, have been trying to strengthen the economy by attracting residents. Meanwhile, the county, which has five public access courses, has been rated the nation's most "underholed" locality by golf associations. York County, Pa., by comparison, has half Baltimore County's population but has 16 public courses.

But county officials have refused Mr. Mangione's petitions in 1988 and 1992 to rezone the land. Within four weeks, a zoning commissioner will decide whether Mr. Mangione's proposed golf course would have a damaging effect on the Hayfields area. The county Board of Appeals, meanwhile, is holding hearings on his latest rezoning request.

But without any rezoning, Mr. Mangione could build 40 houses at Hayfields. And the county's highly restrictive zoning still would allow more than 3,000 new houses to be built throughout the Valleys, where about 13,000 people live.

That might not protect farmers such as William H. "Hank" Suchting, owner of Branchwater Farms. He leases most of the 1,300 acres he farms in the fertile valleys, growing corn, soybeans, alfalfa hay, wheat and barley, and raising beef cattle and hogs.

Most of the land he leases is in the Greenspring and Worthington valleys. And he fears that the loss of Hayfields -- whose size and fertile soil make it the Valleys' most coveted farm -- would boost the cost of farmland.

"The farmer that now farms Hayfields would be out there looking for other farmland to lease. That farmland could be some that I now farm," he said, leaning against the fence gate next to his two-story combine, a $179,000 Massey Ferguson.

New development, even a 10-house subdivision, makes farming more difficult, he said.

Moving slow farm machinery along county roads from one field to another frustrates area residents impatient to get to work or back home. And development has sliced farmland into smaller and smaller parcels, making it less convenient and more costly to cultivate.

Farms and cropland are vanishing in the county, having fallen by about 20 percent from 1982 to 1992. Cropland, for example, fell from 74,025 to 58,567 acres, the state Department of Agriculture says.

And though the Valleys themselves have not yet been hit by a big drop in farmland, the threat is there. Some fields that Mr. Suchting tills have had percolation test holes dug in preparation for land sales.

Lloyd Reynolds, president of the county Farm Bureau, understands the farmer's plight. "If farms were more profitable, you wouldn't have to worry about golf courses replacing farms," he said.

To illustrate, he said that in 1939, a farmer paid about $800 for a tractor and $40 a ton for fertilizer. Bread cost 33 cents a loaf and farmers got $3 a bushel for wheat. Today, that same tractor costs $26,000, fertilizer $200 a ton, a loaf of bread goes for $1.89 and farmers still get $3 a bushel for wheat.

Still, the issue of shrinking farmland must be balanced with property owners' rights, he said. And on this point Mr. Reynolds has some sympathy for the Mangiones.

"Property rights and land equity are the few things the farmer has left," he said. Similarly, the Mangiones have the right to get equity out of what they own.

John Merryman, who grew up on Hayfields, agrees.

"A golf course is an ideal use for the farm," said Mr. Merryman, whose father, Nicholas Bosley Merryman, was the last manager of the farm. "It was a beautiful farm.

"Look at it now. It's in terrible condition compared to what I lived there," said Mr. Merryman, who lives in Parkton. "At least if it's developed right, it would give the farm some dignity back."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad