Losing a slice of their life Farmland: A State Highway Administration plan to build a Route 32 on-ramp would cut 3 acres from a Howard County family's farm.

December 05, 1998|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

As rush-hour cars zoom over a nearby ridge, Teresa Stonesifer lugs a 50-pound bag of grain mix toward her mooing Angus calves.

It is 7 a.m. at Triple Creek Farm, and she is rushing through her daily ritual before heading to work at the local landfill.

For Stonesifer and her family, the 96-acre farm in western Howard County is a way of life. Family-owned since 1934, the farm has been protected under Howard County's farmland-preservation program since 1989.

But the farm's future is in doubt, Stonesifer says, if the State Highway Administration continues with plans to purchase 3 acres of Triple Creek land to build an on-ramp for an expanding Route 32.

"We've poured our hearts and souls into this place. We're part of it," says a frowning Stonesifer, 34. "We need all the acreage to farm."

Many part-time farmers might say that fighting over 3 acres is ridiculous, especially because the SHA says Stonesifer will be well-compensated. She disagrees.

The farm is more than crops and cattle. It has been home to Stonesifer's grandparents. Her mother, father, sister and brother live in several houses there, and her husband, Gary, and son Eric, 15, live with her in a small, cream-colored home on a hill.

Raising beef cattle and calves for other farmers is arduous -- made harder by her husband's bad back and her day job weighing trash -- but Stonesifer says cleaning stalls at sunrise and shoveling hay at sunset are her salvation.

"It's godliness waking up here," says Stonesifer. "You just can't replace it. You can't get it anywhere else."

The pending purchase could mean the loss of a valuable watering hole and trees that shade cattle during scorching summer mornings, she said.

Stonesifer is also worried about traffic and pollution advancing on her home.

Her fight, which has included writing letters and making telephone calls, began when she learned of the proposals in June.

Stonesifer has caught the attention of local state delegates and a state senator, who wrote letters to SHA that said the on-ramp would hurt her family's farm.

In response to those letters and Stonesifer's complaints, SHA engineers have met with her at Triple Creek Farm and have begun studying ways to reroute a small stream and move the watering hole at state expense.

At first, SHA did not plan to touch Triple Creek Farm. But a review by environmental agencies determined that the SHA's first on-ramp proposal, in 1996, would dump too much debris and pollution into a stream that runs along Route 32 and feeds the Chesapeake Bay.

The redesigned on-ramp wold sweep onto Triple Creek at the southwestern corner of the intersection of Routes 32 and 144.

SHA engineers took their new sketches to residents, hoping to build a consensus for their plans. But they forgot to contact the Stonesifer family.

"It was an oversight on our part," said Vaughn Lewis, the project engineer.

On a stormy June night, after a long evening helping a cow give birth, Stonesifer arrived late at a public meeting to discuss the SHA's plans. When she arrived, she saw the sketches showing the on-ramp jutting onto her property.

She cried.

SHA engineers say they faced a dilemma while building a road that will carry 40,000 cars a day by 2020: protect the bay or preserve a sliver of land for a part-time farmer.

"We're taking only a small piece," said Heather Murphy, the project manager for the SHA. "What do we impact, the streams and wetlands or her farmland? We will be impacting the farm, but not her ability to farm."

Stonesifer is mostly worried about losing her watering hole and pasture, but she also wonders whether this is just the beginning. She wonders whether the SHA will want more land. If the state expands Route 144, a few hundred feet from her house, will it need another chunk?

One recent morning, wearing muddy boots, jeans and a work jacket with a patch proclaiming "Teresa," Stonesifer clomps around in the mud, carrying feed and calling her cows -- Missy, Fab and Elaina -- by name.

Several calves waddle toward her. One stands alone, afraid, waiting for Stonesifer to leave.

Stonesifer talks about her past, how the farm has been a part-time family affair since the 1960s. From 1987 until early this year, she owned a small school bus company and worked the land when she wasn't ferrying suburban children to their schools.

Then, in 1989, her husband hurt his back, tearing cartilage that protects his spinal cord. On bad days, he is stuck in the house, unable to help with chores.

In February, she left the school bus business and took a full-time job weighing and separating trash at the Howard County Landfill for better benefits and income. "Before Gary's accident, he took care of us 100 percent," she says. "Things have changed for all of us."

Now, after a long day weighing trash, Stonesifer looks weary as she drives her husband down a steep hill toward the land the state wants to buy, their pickup truck jostling in the rough terrain. Leaving him behind, she walks across the pasture as shadows creep toward barren trees.

"I stand here and wonder," she says. "Will this be the edge of our land?"

Pub Date: 12/05/98

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