Suburban farms meet opposition as they look to change business

Maxine and Robert Walker have worked to restore their historic Woodbine farm since they bought it in 1994. Their latest project is to replace the rotting wood on the side of their old yellow barn after rebuilding the stone foundation and replacing the tin roof.

To help pay for renovations at Harwood Horse Farm, they want to rent out part of their land for private parties and open an antiques store in an old shed. As they've sought approval from Howard County, though, the Walkers have lost friends, they say. Neighbors along quiet Jennings Chapel Road have fought for five years to stop them, pointing to the threat of traffic, litter and growing commercialization. They even held a parade in protest.

The dispute mirrors others around the Baltimore suburbs, where many farmers have been branching out because their plots are too small for them to make enough profit on agriculture alone. Various forms of agritourism — including corn mazes, scarecrow-making and pick-your-own orchards — have been around for a long time. But new land uses are cropping up, challenging local governments that have placed strict limits on what commercial activities are allowed on agricultural land.

"It's difficult for elected officials to determine how you draw the line," said Gene L. Swackhamer, retired president of the Farm Credit Bank and former national 4-H Foundation board member.

It can be difficult to distinguish a quaint produce stand from a full-service market, and it's tough to reckon with new uses like spaces for events, paintball courses and batting cages, which have been proposed elsewhere.

In Howard County this year, farmers have found themselves at the center of County Council debates over whether to relax restrictions on beekeeping and winemaking. Baltimore County has seen several high-profile legal battles in recent years over landowners' plans to sell products directly from their farms.

Swackhamer said it's difficult to make an income on small farms because they're not cost-effective. Farmers often have second jobs, rely on dual incomes or, as in the Walkers' case, find other opportunities to make money from their property and maintain their small farming operation.

Many neighbors along Jennings Chapel Road have testified against the Walkers' plan because they say that it would disrupt the community, bringing a commercial business too close to neighboring homes and farms, and potentially drawing more development.

"It's something that represents a major change for the area," said neighbor Robert Styler. "There are specific areas for development, but this is not one of them."

Because Howard County law would require that events at the Walkers' property be held outside, Styler said he believes the parties would be concentrated during the warmer months, creating regular disturbances for nearby residents.

"It's very quiet" now, he said. "Obviously, you have farm machinery going by, but the character is very scenic, very local."

Concerns similar to Styler's regularly arise when farms seek uses for their land that stray from traditional agriculture.

"Anything that is really related to agriculture seems to fly pretty well," but "people do get concerned about the manufacturing and distribution of goods" when it could be done elsewhere and not take up farmland, said Teresa Moore, executive director of the Valleys Planning Council. The group promotes land-use planning and preservation in northwestern Baltimore County.

She recalled several similar zoning challenges in Baltimore County.

At a Long Green Valley farm in Baltimore County, Bobby Prigel fought to open a creamery at his 260-acre Bellevale Farm. Prigel wanted to sell organic products made from his cows' milk, but he put the project on hold when neighbors objected to a commercial enterprise in an area where numerous farms are safeguarded from development through preservation programs.

This week, a state appeals court ruled that neighbors have the right to pursue their arguments in Circuit Court.

"We want to keep the farm viable," Prigel said. The farm must find other ways to compete with larger farms in the West and even abroad, he said, which is even more difficult given high suburban land prices. "We have to be profitable in Baltimore County."

Neighbors of Springfield Farm in Sparks, meanwhile, were concerned when its owner wanted to open a roadside stand, Moore said. They argued that farmland shouldn't be used for a commercial operation that could be located where commercial businesses aren't butting up to residential areas.

Brad Powers, former deputy secretary for the state Department of Agriculture and president of Shore Gourmet, which tries to help smaller farms market themselves, said roadside stands or corn mazes are different. Those uses support growing food, while the Walkers' and others don't.

"That gets to be more of a commercial use," he said.

He said smaller farms have been bolstered by "buy local" trends and community-supported agriculture programs, especially those near population centers and larger potential customer bases.

Such farmers are "trying to make lemonade out of lemons," using their proximity to customers to make money, said Susan G. Summers, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Farm Bureau.

In Howard County, Ted Mariani, a member of Concerned Citizens of Western Howard County, said many farmers have looked to for ways to turn a profit on smaller plots. His group advocates for land preservation in rural areas.

"What has happened over the last decade, some of the farms in the county have decided the typical grain farming or raising cattle are very difficult," he said, given competition from larger operations.

He said he knows several farmers who must rent land from other property owners to make a profit. Another farmer wants to open a creamery instead of selling milk to Pennsylvania for processing, but that could be considered a commercial operation.

And in more heavily developed Ellicott City, the owners of the 540-acre Elioak Farm also operate Enchanted Forest storybook attractions to help supplement income on the land where development is restricted because the land was placed under agricultural preservation in the 1980s.

"We've been trying to push value-added activities to existing farms," said Mariani, including a council measure to relax zoning restrictions on beekeeping earlier this year.

In May, the Howard County Council approved a contentious measure allowing farmers to establish wineries, but many residents expressed concerns over traffic, crowds and having large commercial operations on their land.

Despite an earlier county approval for the zoning change on the Walkers' property, neighbors in Woodbine fought back, taking the issue before the local Board of Appeals.

During hearings, neighbors testified against the proposal, citing disturbances such as increased traffic on narrow country roads, noise from DJs, and general concerns from a business operating out of residential and agricultural areas. Others complained about the potential for bright lights, large outdoor party tents and rowdy guests partying late into the night.

"I never thought anything like this would happen," Maxine Walker said. "I had just thought it was beautiful, and I thought we could share it with people," she said.

Walker said she expects mostly daytime bookings because "the beauty of this place is in the daytime." When neighbors raised concerns over heavy crowds coming into the neighborhood, she said she's had a few inquiries about event bookings, but they've been for smaller events, such as children's birthday parties.

Each year, the couple host several hundred people for the Iron Bridge Hounds fox hunt, they said, without any problems. Walker said some of the neighbors even join in.

Closing arguments before the Board of Appeals are scheduled for Dec.12. If the Walkers or their neighbors choose to appeal the outcome of that decision, the issue will be heard in court.

Despite the challenge, Maxine Walker said her effort to restore the rustic property to its former glory has not wavered. And whatever the result of her own zoning case, she said, "The neighborhood's going to change."

She added, "We could live here comfortably as it is, but we want to continue to make improvements. You get so much satisfaction out of it."

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