Conservancy prevents orchard's foreclosure Group raises funds, adds loan from state to save Hoffman farm

September 13, 1998|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Three weeks ago, the auctioneer's gavel was about to slam on Nancy and Lou Hoffman's farm, threatening to end operations at the largest -- and one of the oldest -- orchards in Baltimore County.

But thanks to neighbors and a local land trust, the Hoffmans are harvesting another apple crop at the farm in Glen Arm.

In an example of the increasing sophistication of land preservationists nationwide, Long Green Valley Conservancy raised $100,000 and pushed to get a $290,000 interest-free state loan to buy the 101-acre Maple Hill Farm three days before the foreclosure sale.

"The concern was that if it were sold at auction, it would be developed into home sites," said Catherine Ebert, president of Long Green Valley Conservancy.

The members of the conservancy researched the law, petitioned for a state grant and formed a limited liability corporation to buy and hold the property.

"It takes a lot of determination and real estate skill to put all this together," said Nick Williams, coordinator of local land trust assistance with the Maryland Environmental Trust.

Lou Hoffman's grandparents bought Maple Hill Farm in 1922 and soon planted the first apple and peach trees. The family phased out other crops to concentrate on the orchard business.

The orchard's hills rise above Glen Arm, a bend in the road with a florist, United Container Co. and a cluster of houses. Below, the Hoffmans sell their fruit at a stand, with lottery tickets, homemade banana nut bread, sodas and hand-painted ceramics.

Baltimore County once had dozens of orchards, but competition from growers in the western United States, a shortage of labor and the spread of suburbia have eliminated all but two full-time orchards in the county, including the Hoffmans', said David A. Martin, agricultural agent in the county for the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service.

Hail and a freeze

Hoffman, 52, said his farm was faring well until hail and a late-spring freeze struck in 1994 and 1995. Never had the family lost its entire crop two years in a row.

"We had basically no income," said Hoffman, who has farmed the land since graduating from college 30 years ago.

With two children in college, bills quickly climbed. Last year, the mortgage company moved to foreclose, ending the Hoffmans' tenure on the land.

Ebert said neighbors learned about the Hoffmans' predicament in March after reading a notice in the newspaper that the farm was to be auctioned.

Residents feared losing not only a family business, but property that holds a key scenic place in Long Green Valley, in the heart of an agricultural area. The farm, which consisted of parcels, could have been developed into six housing lots.

'They were receptive'

"We contacted the Hoffmans to see if they would like us to get involved, and they were receptive," Ebert said.

Although Long Green Valley Conservancy has worked to protect land in northeastern Baltimore County for three years, this was the first time members pooled their money to buy property.

"We were afraid we wouldn't get the funds together in time," Ebert said.

With the auction rescheduled for Aug. 24, residents hurried to raise money to pay off the mortgage. About 10 residents donated $100,000 toward buying the farm, and in July the conservancy received a $290,000, interest-free loan from Maryland Environmental Trust to pay the balance.

Ownership has transferred to a limited liability corporation overseen by the conservancy, with the Hoffmans as renters. Ebert said the next step will be to sell development rights on the farm to the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation and repay the five-year loan. If that endeavor fails, the six development rights would be donated to the Maryland Environmental Trust.

"More and more land trusts are using this technique to protect pieces of land," said the MET's Williams. "People are realizing that if the public moneys aren't available from the Department of Natural Resources for the purchase of a piece of property, then there is this alternate strategy."

'I'm happy'

Ebert said the conservancy hopes to make more such arrangements.

Hoffman said he hopes that in a few years the family will be able to buy back the farm, which will cost less without development rights. The family is planting asparagus for additional security if the peach and apple crops are damaged.

"I'm happy for the way it worked out," he said.

Pub Date: 9/13/98

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