ent dedicated to rural heritage

The Baltimore Sun

MASSEY -- Sean Jones surveys the lush green expanse of ripening winter wheat that his dairy herd will be munching all year. Fourteen hundred acres - looking in any direction, it's pretty much all you can see.

This uninterrupted vista is what convinced the Jones clan (including Sean's parents, two brothers and their families) to pull up stakes in 1995, swapping their farm near Mount Holly, N.J., to come here to Kent County, one of the remaining spots on the East Coast where farming endures as the cornerstone of a rural way of life.

In New Jersey, "we were just locked in by development," says Jones, 42. "Fortunately, we know farming in Kent County isn't going to change like that. It's our future - and our kids' future, if they want."

At a time when farmland across the Eastern Shore seems to be sprouting as many houses as crops, Kent County prides itself on being the exception. Almost 85 percent of the county's land is zoned for agriculture - and a quarter of those acres are under preservation easements that essentially ban development.

This determination to preserve Kent's rural character has given the county an image of being rather unfriendly to business. And the census needle has barely budged in a century. But Kent's bucolic landscape caught the attention of The Progressive Farmer magazine, which recently put the county at the top of its annual list of the Best Places to Live in Rural America.

Jamie Cole, managing editor of the Alabama-based journal with a circulation of 675,000, says he was impressed by the county's ability to maintain its traditional character in the shadow of urban behemoths.

"What really set it apart is the residents themselves," Cole says. "There's a dedication to the agricultural lifestyle, to a rural sensibility."

And that's the way the residents like it.

"Without a shadow of a doubt, people here want the place to stay the same," says County Councilman Ronnie Fithian, 57, who has lived in the county all his life.

Kent is perhaps a two-hour drive from Baltimore or Washington - you go over the Bay Bridge and head north. Unlike its cousins to the south, Queen Anne's, Talbot and Dorchester counties, Kent was never forced to deal with hordes of summer tourists driving to and from ocean beaches, though weekend boaters do head to the marinas of Rock Hall.

Growth has largely been clustered around the county seat of Chestertown and a couple of smaller municipalities. The county population hovers around 20,000, about the same as when census takers counted 100 years ago.

Almost a fourth of Kent's residents live in Chestertown, including 1,200 students at Washington College, the liberal arts campus that was founded partly with a donation from its namesake, who traveled through town on official business.

These days, Kent is the only county in Maryland with just one high school - a building that opened in 1972 to handle 1,300 students. Today, there are fewer than 800 attending classes there.

Kent officials and residents have worked hard to keep growth in check. They have relied on comprehensive planning, strict zoning and a network of local, state and private land preservation funds that pay farmers to give up their development rights.

With nearly 40,000 acres set aside in a variety of easement programs, there is a waiting list of 25 farmers and landowners who want to sign up for the largest fund, the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation.

"It's always been there, that sense of preservation," said John Hall, a county extension agent. "It's also fortunate that there are a lot of wealthy landowners here. That's why you don't often see farms change hands."

County zoning rules limit construction on land for zoned for agriculture to one house per 20 acres or one house per 30 acres. All together, 152,096 of the county's 179,840 acres are zoned for agriculture.

"Kent County is usually the one we hold up as an example," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, who heads the anti-sprawl group 1,000 Friends of Maryland. "The people have a clear vision. They've fought Wal-Mart, a new bay bridge. ... Kent County shows how things can be done."

Marion Fry and her husband, Edwin R. Fry, own a 580-acre dairy farm called Fairhill Farm. It sits on a hilltop outside Chestertown, with spectacular views across some of the only rolling farmland on the Shore.

The family, including her son, Matthew, 22, a recent graduate of Virginia Tech, rents 1,300 acres. The family also operates the former U.S. Naval Academy farm in Gambrills, a certified organic dairy.

"There's a wonderful sense of community here," says Marion Fry, who is on the board of the Kent County Farm Bureau. "It's a beautiful, gracious place to live."

"It was always remote, but you can't say that anymore - not with the development pressure on the entire East Coast," she adds. "This is a place where you can still live life on a human scale."

Members of the Jones family live in houses set back along the two-lane blacktop road that splits their sprawling fields. For them, life is a 24/7 computer-controlled operation that employs 12 to 15 workers who help care for - and milk - up to 2,400 black-and-white Holsteins.

Sean Jones and his younger brother, Andy, 39, also graduates of Virginia Tech, handle the dairy operation. Their brother David, 45, is the mechanic for the family's fleet of farm machinery. Their father, Lester Jones, 65, works selling farm equipment.

Four grandchildren are in the family, none old enough to have made any decisions about the work they'll pursue.

Councilman Fithian acknowledges that in pushing to preserve its agricultural heritage, Kent County has acquired a reputation for being less than friendly to business and development.

"When you have zoning as tight as we do, you get a bit of that reputation that's going to lose us some projects," says Fithian, a former waterman who is town manager of Rock Hall. "If there is a downside, it's that too many of our young people have to leave for jobs."

He adds: "In balance, though, it's a nice place to live, and most people feel the same way. ...

"We long ago determined that we didn't want smokestacks. We want marinas, sailing centers, tourism and agriculture."

chris.guy@baltsun.com

Kent County

Population: 19,983

Kent is Maryland's smallest county, 179,840 acres

About 85 percent of land -- 152,096 acres -- zoned for agriculture.

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