Battle over war games Land-use controversy on Carroll Co. farm taken to state panel

At issue is paint-ball course

August 16, 1998|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN STAFF

When William Hartman wants to relax on the weekend, he invites family, friends and neighbors to his 34-acre farm south of Taneytown for a day of war.

Adults and children -- ages 10 to 60 -- converge on a 2-acre course in a corner of Hartman's property and engage in mock battles of paint ball -- the popular, fast-paced sport of carbon-dioxide-powered rifles and splattering colored pellets.

To Hartman, it is no different from inviting friends over for a game of softball or horseshoes.

But Hartman's friendly war games have placed his property -- part of the state's Agricultural Land Preservation Program -- at the center of another battle, one that may define property rights for program participants.

At issue is what type of activity -- other than agriculture -- should be allowed on land the state has paid to preserve for farming. State law prohibits commercial, industrial or residential uses on the land, but the laws are not as clear about other activities, such as recreation.

Hunting, pony shows, dog shows, hayrides, 4-H fairs and picnics have been allowed on preservation land on a case-by-case basis by the state Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation, which oversees the 139,000 acres of farmland that have been preserved in Maryland.

But in the 20 years since the program started, this is the first time the board has been asked to address recreational uses such as baseball diamonds, football fields or, in this case, a paint-ball course.

Several farmers and politicians in Carroll County -- which, with more than 29,000 acres of preservation land, is among the leaders in the state -- have asked the state to stop Hartman's weekend battles.

"I'm not about to support a program that's going to preserve land for agriculture and have it put to other uses," said state Sen. Larry E. Haines, a Westminster Republican who chairs the county's legislative delegation. "You can't have a horse farm in the middle of a paint-ball field."

Haines said permitting Hartman's games to continue threatens to undermine the state's multimillion-dollar land-preservation program. If paint ball is allowed on this land, "what's next?" he asked.

The answer, Haines and others fear, is all-terrain vehicle and motorcycle courses.

Hartman laughs when he hears his critics. The retired state trooper said he has obeyed the regulations of the preservation program, which has allowed him to run a productive quarter-horse farm on his property.

"I don't think it means that you are not supposed to enjoy the land," he said. "I know that they don't want you to build a factory, but does it mean I have to go ask the state, 'Can I go play in my field?' "

Hartman entered the Agricultural Land Preservation Program in 1991, when he sold his farm's development rights -- the ability to sell off parcels from his farm for residential development -- for $58,000.

Hartman's farm is like many that surround it. On a recent $H afternoon, cats slumbered in the shade of his whitewashed barns, young quarter horses grazed in the fields, and except for the occasional passing car, there was nothing but peace and quiet.

Last year, Hartman was granted a conditional-use permit from the county to operate a commercial paint-ball course inside one of his barns, although he has never charged for use of the barn, he said.

The county allowed the paint-splattered room of wooden barricades because the barn is on a 1-acre plot not included in the preservation program. The indoor paint-ball course is rarely used, Hartman said. Most visitors prefer to battle on the 2-acre course Hartman and his son Rick, who operates paint-ball-supply stores in Westminster and Frederick, constructed on agricultural-preservation land.

The course, made of wooden fences, barricades, barrels and other defensive structures, is open to friends and occasionally to paint-ball clubs. The Hartmans do not charge players to use the field, they said, so it is not a commercial enterprise.

The games caught the eye of Hartman's neighbor Albert L. Liebno Sr., who complained to county and state officials that Hartman's land was being misused. He also accused the Hartmans of charging players for admission and for paint pellets.

The Hartmans denied the charges.

"There has never been a nickel exchanged," William Hartman said.

Charge or no charge, Liebno said, Hartman is violating the spirit of the preservation program.

"Why should taxpayers pay for him to keep it in agriculture and do what he's doing with it?" asked Liebno, who said he represents a half-dozen county farmers opposed to the paint-ball course. "If John Q. Public knew how the land was being handled, there would be an uproar."

Liebno's complaints have created a new issue for the Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation.

A variety of activities, from church bazaars to hayrides, have been permitted on preservation land, said Douglas H. Wilson, director of administration for the state Department of Agriculture.

"Then you enter the realm of paint ball, where's that?" Wilson asked.

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