Chemicals, conflict in air near farmland

Neighbors: A northern Baltimore County resident's lawsuit underscores the tensions between farmers and transplanted suburbanites.

April 19, 1999|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

Outside, a stiff spring breeze whistles past the maple and oak trees that line acre after acre of rolling northern Baltimore County farmland.

Inside, James Baseman sorts his papers.

He's got letters from the state. He's got color snapshots of farm equipment spraying herbicide in the nearby cornfields.

And somewhere on his dining room table he's got an unusual criminal complaint that has riled many a farmer in the fields north of Baltimore -- and underscored the tensions between old farm families and the suburban expatriates drawn to the fresh air and scenic views.

A festering dispute became a full-fledged feud last year when Baseman, a relative newcomer to the north county, swore out criminal charges against John McGinnis, a third-generation farmer. McGinnis is accused of illegally allowing spray from his farm chemicals to drift onto Baseman's property.

Last week, Basemen opened a new front in the dispute, filing a $400,000 civil lawsuit in Baltimore County Circuit Court against McGinnis.

For years, Baseman has complained to state regulators that the spray "drift" has driven his family from its back yard and even wafted into his White Hall home, making his children ill.

McGinnis grows corn, soybeans and wheat on nearly 2,000 acres in northern Baltimore County and southern Pennsylvania, including 70 acres that he leases adjacent to Baseman's property.

The 60-year-old farmer said he complies with state regulations, adding: "I've never had any problems with anybody all the years we've been farming."

Farmers who scoff at Baseman's complaint are so angry that they raised money for a defense fund and made plans to charter a bus to a Towson courthouse to demonstrate support for McGinnis.

"John is a guy who the agricultural community sees as a very good operator, doing things right, and he ends up in trouble," said Steve Weber, a Carney farmer who is president of the Maryland Farm Bureau. "They see that what happened to him can happen to any of them if they happen to be next to a neighbor who is overactive on these issues."

The criminal trial -- which would have been unlike any that county prosecutors could recall -- was postponed. But charges could be pursued later this year if McGinnis does not live up to an agreement he signed last week with the Maryland Department of Agriculture, said Sue A. Schenning, a deputy state's attorney for Baltimore County.

Keeping farms economically viable means applying chemicals that sometimes drift in trace amounts onto neighboring properties, said Louis Ensor, president of the Baltimore County Farm Bureau.

"These are people who move into the area and appreciate the view and the open spaces and all, but there's a lot more to farming than that," Ensor said.

"I'm just trying to get the laws of the state enforced to give my children and my property protection," said Baseman.

Baseman is not without supporters. "There are many of us who are concerned about these sprays," said Kirk Nevin, a White Hall resident for nearly 50 years.

Nevin said he likes to ride his bicycle on area roads -- except in the spring. "There's a period of time, about three weeks or a month, when you can't ride the roads without breathing the chemicals," he said.

Friction between farmers and their neighbors is nothing new; Weber recalls a turn-of-the-century property deed in Baltimore County that banned hog farming because neighbors objected to the smell.

Today, conditions seem even more ripe for conflict in northern Baltimore County, where scattered building lots and bedroom communities have sprung up near farms.

Baseman, 41, was raised in Woodlawn and lived for two years in Timonium before moving to the Freeland area of northern Baltimore County in 1984. Five years later, he bought a 7-acre plot in White Hall. He built a house and started a Christmas tree farm. He also operates a home inspection business from his house.

To drive near Baseman's home on Old York Road is to behold Baltimore County's rural splendor. Hills rise and gently fall, revealing vast stands of Christmas trees and wide fields, stubbled with the remains of last year's corn crop but ready for the 1999 planting. It is fertile land that contributes to the county's $51 million-a-year agricultural industry.

Baseman insisted that he is not unsympathetic to the challenges of running a successful farm, nor is he out to stop spraying on farms. But he complains that the state has done little more than issue warning letters to McGinnis.

Thomas F. Filbert, an assistant state's attorney general representing the Department of Agriculture, said tests found only negligible chemical levels on Baseman's property. He said regulators have monitored McGinnis' spraying over the years and have suggested techniques to prevent spray from drifting from the farm property.

Schenning, the deputy state's attorney for Baltimore County, said she agreed to a postponement in the criminal trial after McGinnis signed an agreement requiring him, among other things, to establish a buffer zone, spray only under optimal wind conditions and, "if economically feasible," use a type of seed that minimizes pesticide applications.

"This thing's gone far enough," McGinnis said last week, sounding eager to put the issue to rest.

Baseman said many of the conditions have been imposed on McGinnis before.

"I don't think anything's been accomplished or settled," he said.

Pub Date: 4/19/99

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