'Grow Your Own' Means No Growth

COMMENT

September 19, 1993|By MIKE BURNS

"Grow the business" is the ardent battle cry of the corporate warriors; standing still means certain economic doom.

Sharon Kirkwood Wilson followed that advice, successfully expanding over the years the variety of goods sold at the farm stand near Hickory that has been in her family for more than three decades. The stone and wood house on U.S. 1 has added baked goods and dairy products, handicrafts, nursery plants and trees, fertilizer and mulch.

Harford County zoning inspectors came by recently and also told her to grow the business. But they meant "grow your own" to stay in business. Otherwise, they said, the stand that has been there for 60 years would violate county zoning restrictions.

Mrs. Wilson, who operates Kirkwood's Farm Market with her husband Gregory, says that the market could not make ends meet if it did not extend its offerings of agricultural products that customers demand.

"We could not survive if we sold only peaches and apples from our farm, it just isn't enough," said Mrs. Wilson, who also works as a full-time nurse. The family has 40 acres nearby, growing corn and fruit and vegetables for sale at the market, but also sells goods produced by others.

County zoning says the problem is that Kirkwood's has gotten too large. There's no traffic problem, or complaints from neighbors or competitors; the store has simply expanded to sell more than "traditional agricultural products" and so flouts the law, officials say.

Because it was in business before the first Harford zoning code in 1957, Kirkwood's is allowed to continue in business as long as it restricts itself to local farm goods.

The conflict went to a public hearing last week before examiner L.A. Hinderhofer. He is to decide whether county zoning is correct that Kirkwood's is in violation, and if so, whether the stand should get permission for extended use.

It's a knotty decision. Kirkwood's is no ramshackle roadside table selling produce in season. It's a year-round enclosed store that even advertises itself as a garden center and bakery. Sno-cones, ice cream and yogurt are sold outside.

On the other hand, the goods are mostly agricultural. And the merchandise has grown in response to repeat customer requests. There's no attempt at deception, fooling the public that everything is pure home-grown and baked on the premises. It's simply that the success of this growing Harford landmark may well prove to be its downfall.

It's a conflict that is repeatedly played out across Maryland and other states. In response to development pressures, local zoning authorities create rules that impinge on established custom. Farmers who once sold only their own crops take on extra produce of others, and they risk violating zoning codes.

But the public has a legitimate interest in preventing the abuse of zoning exceptions. Let these farm stands become unrestricted year-round grocery stores, without the costs and regulation of zoned retailers, and someone is going to buy them and put up a Kmart on the property.

"We are seeing more and more of this conflict, which is a tough one to resolve," said George Roche of the state Agriculture Department's marketing office. Farm markets can't make it if they don't expand their product line, like any successful business, he said.

"Farmers perceive it as threatening their livelihood, when they don't have the option of picking up and leaving," Mr. Roche said. The state does not define or regulate these farm stands, he added, but the Agriculture Department is trying to promote farmer markets in Maryland.

When these exempted stands reach a certain size, the farmer has to come to terms with the local zoning office. Valley View Farms in Baltimore County's Cockeysville, for example, began as a farm produce stand; it's now a huge seller of garden and nursery items, Christmas decorations and landscaping materials. Weber's Farm near Carney finally got commercial zoning to protect its popular retail produce and cider operation from the encroachment of residential development.

Penalizing success goes against our national philosophy. But so does giving one person an unfair legal advantage. There's also the nagging prospect that a compromise decision on Kirkwood's will set an undesirable precedent for other exempted farm stands. So Mr. Hinderhofer, a local attorney, will have no easy decision to make by Oct. 15.

If the stand's operations are sharply curtailed, there's a good chance the Wilsons will give up the leased market and stop farming their land. That would be a net loss for Harford agriculture, even as the county and state spend millions of dollars to pay farmers to keep their lands in agrarian production.

In fact, there is no turning back the clock on modern farms or on the farm stands. They must operate under today's economic demands. (Mr. Roche pointed out that farm stands have long sold produce and other items from non-local sources, to meet public demand and fill in between the vagaries of local harvests.)

The crackdown on an establishment long known to Harford officials follows an unsuccessful attempt by the County Council last spring to restrict roadside vendors.

Meanwhile, Kirkwood's is doing business as usual, waiting for the appeals process to run its course. Customers drop by for their provisions, many of them signing a petition that supports the Wilsons in taking a stand for their stand.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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