Ralph L. Hackler and his wife, Elsie, have been fighting to preserve their little corner of northern Baltimore County paradise since 1965 and, so far, they say, they've succeeded.
Some might disagree, considering that much of their wooded five acres on Evna Road off Mount Carmel Road is covered with partially junked trucks, school buses and machine parts, small animals and a dizzying variety of construction and farm equipment, plus the truck Hackler uses to pump out septic tanks.
"I know I've got a rough-looking place," the 53-year-old farmer-mechanic said of his rural compound, "but I don't sell any junk. Some of the trucks I keep for parts. Parts are expensive nowadays. I just wrecked my station wagon hitting a deer," he said, to further explain his need for parts.
Not everyone is sympathetic. A man who has bought land next to Hackler's has had it with the farmer's "parts" collection. County officials have tried through court orders to get Hackler to clean up for 25 years. It is a dispute not unlike scores of others festering on the edge of suburbia as formerly rural areas draw homeowners with a different definition of order. However, other well-to-do neighbors have come to Hackler's defense, saying the farmer is always helpful and a local institution.
Generations of Hacklers have lived and worked in northern Baltimore County. Ralph has built rude, homemade fences to enclose his family's land from the prying eyes of nosy county zoning inspectors and "city folks" who have moved to the area and who don't take kindly to the appearance of his land.
He's also been in and out of trouble with county zoning authorities since Oct. 21, 1965, when he was first ordered to remove all his junk within 90 days. New complaints were filed in 1973, 1980, 1983 and 1988, according to county records.
Ernest Tyler, of Harford County, is particularly unhappy about the situation. He and his brother, Fred, bought five acres along Evna Road just in front of Hackler's enclave in mid-1988. Real estate agents assured them that county officials were about to force a cleanup of Hackler's property, he said. Tyler and his brother wanted to build two homes for themselves and settle down.
Now, he despairs that Hackler will ever clean up his act. He complains that he can't even sell his lots because of the neighboring junk piles.
Hackler vows that he won't clean up, and will go to jail, if necessary.
His neighbors, all of whom have very neat, orderly homesteads, comparatively speaking, are very protective of Hackler and are trying to help him preserve his way of life. Leslie A. Winter, a neighbor who also is a lawyer, is even representing Hackler in his latest battle with county zoning authorities.
"He's a good neighbor. Everyone around there is happy to have him," Winter said. He hopes to have Hackler's enclave declared a non-conforming use, which in zoning terms means something that existed before county zoning began.
John and Mary Roemer, 30-year residents, said Hackler preceded them all and shouldn't have to suffer because standards for rural areas have changed.
"He'll pull you out of a snow drift with his tractor. He'll do anything for you," Mary Roemer said.
"People who build housing developments trash the north county more than Ralph Hackler does," said John Roemer, a teacher. "He lives differently than the rest of us. Where do people who live differently go to live?"
Sherlock Gillet, a former neighbor, recalled how Hackler helped search the neighborhood for an escaped convict several years ago, caught him in a neighbor's home and marched the man up Mount Carmel Road with his shotgun at the man's back.
"So he uses a school bus to store things instead of a manufactured metal storage shed. What's the difference? They're both sheet metal," Gillet mused.
County zoning authorities are seeking a permanent injunction to order a cleanup. A trial began last April in Towson District Court, recessed due to a technicality. Elsie Hackler, part-owner of the land, had not been summonsed to court.
After county sheriffs failed to serve her, the county was forced to hire a private process server in August, who got close to her by pretending to be lost and then handed over the court papers, zoning officials said.
"They wouldn't have ever served her if I'd been on my toes," Hackler said.
Tyler despairs of any county-inspired cleanup.
"We've been hearing this and hearing this for over two years," he said. Hackler's "infringing on my right as a citizen. I have to make monthly payments on that property and the taxes just doubled from $240 to $520," Tyler said.
Hackler's reply comes in the form of a question.
"Then why did he buy the land? I don't care what's going to happen. I'm so sick and tired of this. I'll go to jail if I have to. If they don't like it, they'll just have to lock me up."