Baltimore County's zoning commissioner has approved a country club golf course on historic Hayfields Farm, giving the property's owners a preliminary but important victory in their battle with preservationists.
Commissioner Lawrence E. Schmidt rejected arguments that loss of the farm's fertile soil to golfers, swimmers, tennis players and banquet attendees was any reason to kill the project.
"Whether the Hayfields Farm should remain a farm is irrelevant," Mr. Schmidt said in a 34-page opinion granting a special exception for the golf course and country club. "This is not a 'pick the best land use' test."
The standard, he said, is whether the country club and golf course proposed for 226 of Hayfields' 474 acres will unduly harm surrounding properties -- and he concluded they would not. Fifty new homes are proposed for the remaining land.
Hayfields -- honored in 1824 by the Marquis de Lafayette as the nTC best run farm in Maryland -- is in the northwest quadrant of the Interstate 83-Shawan Road intersection.
Since it was sold to a developer in 1975, the farm has been viewed as the front line in the battle to preserve the character of Baltimore County's wealthy, rustic central valleys.
Hayfields has been owned since 1986 by the Mangione family and developer Nicholas B. Mangione, who built the Turf Valley resort north of Columbia. He has been rebuffed twice since then in bids for rezoning the property.
Mr. Mangione said he is happy with the decision. "You can't mandate a property owner to keep it a farm," he said, adding that he intends to build "something me and my family will be very proud to own."
He also vowed to go ahead with the project even if he doesn't win a separate rezoning for the remaining farmland to allow construction of 10 more luxury homes than the 40 now allowed. Without the profit from the extra homes, Mr. Mangione said, it might take 10 years longer "for the return to be realized."
G. Scott Barhight, lawyer for the Mangione family, said the decision was "obviously very significant" and expressed pleasure at the "very, very strong language in this order."
Some of the language was critical of the county planning and environmental protection departments for failing to take a stand on the project.
Opponents vowed an appeal.
The Mangiones' toughest fight -- rezoning the land to allow the additional homes -- is before the county Board of Appeals, where the final day of hearings is set for Monday.
Both cases will likely undergo several levels of court appeals that could take years.
Even if the Mangiones win all their appeals, their development plan still would have to pass muster under the county's development process, which gives opponents another chance to change or defeat it.
"It's not a surprise," said John C. Bernstein, executive director of the Valleys Planning Council, a private, nonprofit group dedicated to keeping public utilities and development out of the Green Spring, Worthington and Caves valleys. "I'd say it's business as usual."
Mr. Bernstein argued that Mr. Schmidt took the predictable, but wrong view of the law governing special exceptions to the agricultural zoning that governs Hayfields' use.
"If you're not going to decide it's inappropriate for the most historic and productive farm in Baltimore County to become a golf course, where is it inappropriate?" Mr. Bernstein said.
He said it is legally proper to consider the effect of development on the land itself as well as on surrounding lands.
Mr. Schmidt ruled that because the County Council provided in zoning law for agricultural lands to be used for such purposes as airports, camps, country clubs and antique shops as special exceptions, the club for Hayfields is appropriate.
He said the country club development will be helpful to the county, because the golf course will be open to the public and the development plan calls for restoring several historic buildings on the site. Traffic problems will be minimal, he said, because the farm is next to an interchange of I-83.
He also noted that assertions by the Mangione family's environmental expert that if carefully managed, the golf course would not harm the ground water in the delicate Cockeysville Marble aquifer beneath it were "uncontradicted by other testimony and evidence."
Mr. Schmidt criticized the county Department of Environment and Resource Management for not sending anyone to testify in the case.
However, J. James Dieter, director of the department, said detailed written comments were submitted. He said the department never was asked to testify.