Couple resisting calls to sell Harwood farm Landowners seek easement from county

August 26, 1998|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Ask Virginia Carlton why she wants to protect her farm in Harwood from development and she'll walk you to a shady place beneath a holly tree not far from her back door.

A 76-year-old with pale blue eyes, she lifts the branches to reveal a grave with its headstone and foot marker just two feet apart. Its inscription refers to a 4-day-old child who died before he was named or baptized in 1835.

Although she never had a child, Carlton spent much of her life wondering how this baby ended up in this mysterious resting place. Why wasn't he buried in a churchyard?

She doesn't know, but her fascination with this quiet rise above her fields is symbolic of her emotional attachment to land she and her husband have farmed for almost half a century.

To preserve their 238 acres from the developers bulldozing farms around them, the Carltons have applied to Anne Arundel County for legal protection called an agricultural easement that would permanently bar construction on the site.

Landowners across the state during the last 21 years have used easements to protect 323,037 acres of farmland -- giving Maryland the most successful preservation program of this kind in the country, said Paul Scheidt, director of the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation.

But Anne Arundel County's program is behind expectations, with the county's 5,771 acres under easement falling short of an advisory board's goal of 20,000 acres by the year 2003, said county land-use department spokesman John Morris.

It's unclear why more landowners in this rapidly growing county aren't using easements to block suburban sprawl. They provide owners not only tax breaks but also cash -- about half the market value of the land -- to compensate for the loss of development rights.

Some former neighbors of the Carltons who have sold their property describe the financial pressures that make this couple's decision rare.

Down Polling House Road from the Carlton farm is a tract whose only link to agriculture is its name: the 26-home Windsor Farm.

The man who sold the 190 acres on which the subdivision was built is the great-grandson of farmers who have worked the land since 1875 -- in the era of Civil War reconstruction.

"My brother and I had our own lives and our own careers and we had no desire to farm," said Harrison Murray, the 73-year-old retired Navy colonel who sold the land in 1989. "We were paying taxes on the land but getting very little income from our tenant farmers."

The Carltons have not reduced their relationship to the land to such a calculus.

Virginia Carlton is a white-haired former substitute teacher at Southern High School whose trembly voice has the crisp articulation of the gentry from a past century.

Her husband, Jean "Buddy" Carlton, is a big, gravel-voiced 79-year-old former agriculture teacher at the same school.

"A real estate agent called about two months ago and asked, 'When are you considering selling your home?' " Virginia said. "I replied, 'Never. I'm going to die here.' One farm after another has sold out. We haven't."

Buddy Carlton's father, Coke B. Carlton, an accountant with the Southern Railroad in Washington, bought the rolling former tobacco plantation west of Harwood as a place to retire in 1933.

After his son finished serving in the Army during World War II, the elder Carlton offered to give him the land if he promised to manage it.

Buddy took his dad up on the deal. In 1949, he and Virginia moved into a 175-year-old former plantation house with porches on the first and second floors and a fireplace in every room.

The couple quickly learned a few unpleasant things about plantation life. The house had no toilets or running water. They also found it's tough to earn a living planting soybeans, wheat and corn.

So they supplemented their income by teaching at the school down the street.

They had nothing in common with the families who had lived in the plantation house before them, other than that they shared the land.

But over the decades, the Carltons became fascinated by the artifacts of a family who lived there early in the 19th century, the Claytors. Buddy and Virginia found a yellowed surveyor's map from 1856 listing the Claytor family name and an 1819 ledger from a store that John Claytor owned.

On a recent afternoon, Buddy fingered a page from that tome as he sat with a guest beneath a tree on a hill overlooking his fields.

"Look at these prices! A gallon of whiskey was only $1.12." he said.

Inviting his guest into a wood-paneled station wagon with bad suspension, Buddy rumbled off on a tour of his farm's bumpy, grass-covered roads. He lurched past a collapsing barn. He banged along the edge of a sea of corn.

At one point in the tour, a pair of deer poked their heads from the waves only to have Virginia curse at them as if they were vermin in her pantry.

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