Should paintball be a protected use on farms?


August 23, 1998|By Mike Burns

FARMLAND preservation programs have always been seen as a good thing for the public, a commitment to open space that does not require purchase and possession of the land by taxpayer expense to maintain the property.

Carroll County has an ambitious goal of keeping 100,000 agricultural acres out of development. It's a basic recognition that farm fields are a significant part of the county's environmental attractions. Even people who live in the middle of towns like the idea that farmland nearby cannot be developed. It becomes a visual and visceral respite from the impertinence of human construction.

Various inconveniences are associated with farming. Noises, odors, waste runoff and farm equipment traveling on public roads. But they pale beside the desire to keep these lands in farming.

The concept sounds simple. The farmland owner receives money for an easement that prohibits the land from being used for other than farm-related purposes. In short hand, that's been considered buying the "development rights" of the property, which the owner continues to possess. Farming operations on the acreage may change, from cash crops to livestock feeding to horse training. But they are still agricultural uses covered under the easement purchased by the county, state or private foundations.

When these protected farming lands were occasionally used for picnics or hayrides or dog trials, no one much cared. Hunting in harvested fields or fishing in a creek on farmland are age-old traditions tied to agricultural stewardship of the land.

For a Philadelphia lawyer

The list of acceptable uses for farmland under easement didn't have to be defined to the satisfaction of a Philadelphia lawyer. People generally agreed on what was permitted, even if some folks didn't like those activities. There were other environmental and zoning laws to regulate unusual activities on the property.

Now the limits of non-farming use of protected land are being tested near Taneytown, in an unusual challenge to the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Program, which administers the easements for 140,000 acres in Maryland.

The owner of a farm under state preservation easement is using the property as an outdoor range for "paintball" war games, provoking protests from some neighbors and legislators.

It's just another recreational use of the family farm, open to friends and clubs without payment, says owner William Hartman, who runs a quarter-horse farm on the property. He insists that his paintball range, covering 2 of his 30 acres, meets the legal requirements.

It's an interesting question, one whose answer may put other landowners under closer scrutiny of their non-farming property uses.

And the usual standards for judging appropriate land use do not apply very well.

Mr. Hartman says he doesn't charge for use of the property in paintball games, so it is not a commercial use. His son, Rick, runs two paintball supply stores, for which there is presumably ,, an economic benefit derived from the available use of the games course on the farmland. But is that a significant direct benefit?

Of course, church bazaars and farming fairs have been permitted on preservation land all over Maryland. Though nonprofit, some organizations have sold items and charged fees for activities on these easement acres. Does that mean they were violating the landowner's agreement with the state?

On the Hartman farm are paintball games structures -- wooden fences, barrels, crates -- that seem to be semi-permanent, at least, in the eyes of his neighbors. Does that make it a dedicated non-farming use of the land, rather than an occasional nonconforming use of open land?

Mountain bikes next?

Objectors to the paintball course warn that motorcycles, off-road vehicles and mountain bikes may be allowed next, if the state does not stop these war games. Success of the preservation program would be threatened.

The decision will be difficult. Key arguments will be about the frequency of these war games, the impact of the colored paintballs and human tramping on the land. And about keeping the land use noncommercial: no farm admission or "shuttle" fees, as well as none for using the actual course.

The issue isn't whether these mock war games themselves are objectionable, but whether they should be allowed on easement lTC land. I suspect that most people would be more worried about hunters shooting live ammunition in neighboring farm fields, a practice heretofore permitted.

One solution, which would please no one, would be to forbid anything except farming on these lands. Fallow fields would lie fallow, without ancillary use. Productive fields would only be used for direct agricultural practices. No social events, no exhibitions or contests, no outdoor sports.

That would surely discourage farm owners from entering the preservation program -- and assure that more green acres are plowed under for development.

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

Pub Date: 8/23/98

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