For generations, Wincopia Farms in Howard County has been an almost idyllic place.
The 124-acre farm of rolling hills that abuts the Middle Patuxent River was home to a greenhouse operation that supplied plants for the grounds of the White House, the Washington Monument and the Kennedy Center.
And Harry C. Hearn, the patriarch of the family that owns the farm, earned admiration for sharing his love of nature with others as much as for running a thriving business, said his daughter, Emily Hearn, who recalls tagging along on deliveries.
"He would stop on the side of the road delivering flowers and show the children the flowers and tell them to look at the clouds in the sky," Emily Hearn said. "We'd say, 'But Dad, we're in a hurry,' and he'd say, 'No, this is what's important.'"
Now the North Laurel farm has fallen on hard times, and a dispute with a lender led to the farm being auctioned in a foreclosure sale on the courthouse steps on Valentine's Day.
The Hearns are trying to reacquire the property - and perhaps open a botanical gardens for the public to enjoy. But development seems more likely for the farm, which is one of the few large parcels in an area of Howard County where growth pressure is building.
"If we had wanted to sell it, we would have sold it a long time ago," Emily Hearn said. "I can remember Dad talking to people even when I was a little girl. We want to live on it, and we want to continue farming."
After Harry Hearn's death in June 1996, the family struggled to maintain the flower business. About eight years ago, they built a $3 million, state-of-the-art greenhouse in an effort to remain viable.
"We had a beautiful facility," said Emily Hearn, 50. "We had the customers, but we didn't have the capital for operating funds."
The family already had a loan on the land when it turned to Gourley & Gourley LLC to help save the farm, which was part of the Wincopin Neck land grant that dates to 1702.
Based in McLean, Va., Gourley is a so-called hard money lender, offering specialized loans often backed by real estate. Such loans are higher risk and carry higher interest rates than those of banks and conventional lending institutions.
In 2002, Gourley lent the Hearns $4.5 million. But within four years the family owed $13 million, more than two-thirds of which was interest and fees, Hearn said. In a 2007 bankruptcy filing, the family accused Gourley of fraud, claiming the lender misrepresented the terms of the loan and made the Hearns vulnerable to losing their farm.
"I think my family has been taken advantage of," Hearn said.
The family had sought extensions before the lender bought the property at foreclosure for $12.5 million. The foreclosure is in the process of being ratified.
The Hearns filed court papers this month alleging that the foreclosure wasn't handled properly. Gourley plans to file a response.
"It's been kind of an emotional roller coaster for us," said Demetris Voudouris, the lawyer for Gourley. "We really haven't decided what we're going to do. You don't make decisions on 124 acres of land in two days."
Gourley has denied the fraud allegations in court papers. Voudouris declined to comment on allegations that the foreclosure wasn't handled properly, pending the filing of a response.
It is likely to be midsummer before any decision is made on what to do with the land, he said.
Gourley is drawing scrutiny in other states. The firm is due in court in Richmond, Va., in July after being accused of selling unregistered membership interests.
And in New Hampshire, a Hindu monastery has sued Gourley, claiming the firm paid itself through a line of credit, then canceled it, leaving the monastery with no access to the money and throwing the loan into default.
The monastery's lawyer, Joshua L. Gordon, said he sees similarities between his case and the situation with Wincopia Farms.
Because much of his client's income comes from donations, the monastery did not qualify for standard loans. In both the New Hampshire and Maryland cases, the borrowers had a desirable asset as collateral, Gordon noted.
The monastery is awaiting a date before the New Hampshire Supreme Court in that case. State securities regulators say they also are looking at Gourley.
Maryland securities officials declined to say whether they are investigating the firm.
The bankruptcy case that Wincopia Farms LP filed claimed that "the corporation departments or securities departments of 20 states have combined to take action against G&G; for violation of various securities laws."
"We have been fully cooperating with the State Corporation Commission and the multistate task force," Gourley attorney, Voudouris, said in response.
Already equipped with water and sewerage, Wincopia Farms is a rare commodity in a growing county and has been on the radar of local developers for years. Some who have watched recent events unfold say they are puzzled about how things got to this point.
"We've talked to them over the years, and for whatever reason it didn't work out," said Steve Breeden, principal at Security Development LLC in Ellicott City. "The fact is that there were people who wanted to try to help them. Sure they hoped to make a profit, but it would have been so much better for the family. You hate to see it."
Breeden said his company envisioned building houses at the site and unsuccessfully bid $12.4 million at the foreclosure sale.
Paul Revelle, a partner in Murray Hill PFC LLC, which is developing 143 villas and condo apartments on 18.6 acres adjacent to the farm, said his company also approached the family.
"I'm not sure why they didn't take our or any other offer," he said. "It was an avoidable tragedy. We could all see what was going to happen."
In the meantime, the Hearns hold out hope of getting the property back and bringing their vision for the farm to reality. On a recent afternoon, Emily Hearn, a real estate agent who continues to work on the farm as she has all her life, gazed over the meadows enjoyed by generations of her family.
"It's nice to know that you're walking the same footsteps that your father has walked and that your grandfather has walked," Hearn said. "It gives you a sense of being."
Her father's dream was to build an educational facility and a botanical garden on the land.
Limited development is a possibility, and the family is considering selling 20 or 30 acres at the south end of the property. Given its tenuous situation, the Wincopia Farms nursery operation is scaled back, Hearn said. Even so, the farmers could quickly build the business back, she said
"We've been part of the fabric of Howard County for generations, and we want to be part of the future," she said. "We want to live here. We want to save the farm."