When suburb meets country, conflicts can arise GREENER PASTURES

January 29, 1995|By Joe Surkiewicz | Joe Surkiewicz,Special to The Sun

Twenty-one years ago, Gloria Arnold moved from her home on a busy highway in Crownsville to the rolling countryside outside Churchville in Harford County. In a brick rancher on a three-acre lot that backs up to a farm, she and her family found the peace and quiet they were looking for.

"I love it here," Ms. Arnold said. "I haven't met anybody who has moved into this area that doesn't like it."

Yet living near a busy farm isn't always idyllic.

"We hear the noise of the machinery," Ms. Arnold said about the sheep and grain operation outside her back door. "And you get the smells -- sometimes to the point of gagging. It's part of living here."

"A lot of people want to move to the countryside for the rural environment," noted Steve Connelly, director of environmental relations for the Maryland Department of Agriculture. "But along with farms in production comes livestock, odors, noise, flies and large equipment on highways. It tends to be a bit of a different culture."

While officials and farmers in Harford, Baltimore, Carroll, Howard and Anne Arundel counties say that complaints by homeowners about neighboring farms are infrequent, they add that some newcomers arrive with misconceptions about farming.

Carroll County enacted a right-to-farm ordinance in December that creates a five-member panel to help settle disputes between homeowners and farmers. The law also requires sellers to notify potential buyers about nearby farming operations.

"We thought it was best to address this before it gets out of hand and becomes a deterrent to agriculture," said Bill Powel, executive secretary to the county's agricultural commission. "As more development occurs, it makes sense to put in a law while agriculture is still viable in the county."

Harford County also passed a right-to-farm law last year and Howard County enacted one in 1989. About half of Maryland's jurisdictions have such laws, which allow farmers to operate machinery at any time and to work their fields according to accepted agricultural practices.

"Suburbanites see farms as open space that's pristine, but they don't see the day-to-day work," said John Burton, a third-generation hog farmer in Hampstead in Carroll County. "There can be a lot of friction between farmers and non-farming neighbors. It's a lack of communication. The farmer has the responsibility of letting the neighbor know what's going on."

"One of the things we try to impress on farmers is that they have to be aware of their surroundings," added Robert Halman, the agricultural extension agent for Harford County.

"If they're going to spread manure, they should send their neighbors a card."

On the other hand, the farm expert said, suburbanites should understand that farmers are trying to make a living. "Sometimes you get neighbors who aren't aware that a crop is a guy's livelihood," Mr. Halman said. "It's not a hobby. But farms get vandalized by kids riding over fields in four wheelers pulling wheelies. It's a matter of awareness."

And, he added, education.

"I don't want to sound like I think all suburbanites are naive, but some are," Mr. Halman continued. "It's an education thing. That's why we sponsor farm visitation days in June when folks can visit a farm. Most farmers are eager for people to see what they're doing and to explain why they plow and spread manure when they do."

County officials say farm noise and odors head the list of homeowner complaints.

"A lady near Jarrettsville called me about the noise of cattle in a dairy operation," recalled Mike Payone, agricultural planner in the Harford County department of planning and zoning. "It put me in a strange position. Am I to ask the cows to be quiet? The bottom line is that a lot of people aren't aware that when they move to an agricultural area they are near an industry with tractors and noise."

Officials also field a lot of phone calls in the spring and fall when many farmers spread manure on fields. "Odors are part of the ambience," said Dave Hitchcock, the commercial horticulture extension agent in Anne Arundel County. "People don't understand it's part of dealing with animals and fertilizers. And many homes are built right up to a farm's property line."

Some suburbanites who move to the country also gripe about slow-moving farm equipment on narrow roads. "The biggest problem is that a lot of old roads must handle a lot of traffic, but some people don't like following a combine or hay wagon down the road," said Martin Hamilton, county extension director for Howard County.

And farmers have a few complaints of their own. "A lot of people move to the country, get a big dog, and then let it run loose," Mr. Hamilton said. "A lot of sheep get attacked, mutilated and killed."

Some farmers mention a lack of respect for private property, from unauthorized picnickers who litter to people fishing without permission from irrigation ponds.

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