No future in family farm

Growers: After spending their lives caring for 2,000 peach and apple trees in Perry Hall, Gus and Jack Moore have agreed to sell their land to Ryland Homes.

September 15, 1999|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

The Moore brothers have had enough of apple picking.

And peach picking.

And Baltimore County zoning codes.

After spending their lives harvesting fruit from 2,000 apple and peach trees, Gus and Jack Moore are selling the Perry Hall farm that has been in their family since 1851.

The Moores have agreed to sell to Ryland Homes, which plans to build 169 houses on the 84 acres of rolling hills and fruit trees along East Joppa Road. They figure now is a good time to sell because this year's countywide rezoning process could change the number of houses permitted on the land and decrease its value.

Still, the Moores say the decision hasn't been easy.

"Of course, I'll miss it," says Gus Moore, 64. "You think you'd miss your right arm? You think you'd miss your whole life? It brings tears to my eyes when I think about it."

While agricultural preservation programs have saved thousands of acres, county officials say the sale of the Moore farm fits a pattern -- as suburbs continue to grow, they continue to eat up farmland.

The county has lost about 1,000 acres of agricultural land each year since 1990, the equivalent of about 10 county farms.

"It's a big concern; that's a lot of land," says Wallace S. Lippincott Jr., administrator of Baltimore County's preservation programs.

Baltimore County spent $3 million last year in county and state money to buy development rights to about 1,200 acres, essentially paying farmers for agreements not to develop their land.

Since 1980, state and county officials have spent $36.7 million to buy rights to 13,000 acres in the county, Lippincott says.

But the Moores say they are not interested in selling development rights. Like the character in the Robert Frost poem, "After Apple Picking," they are tired and see no future in it.

Gus Moore's two daughters and Jack Moore's son and daughter have married and found full-time work off the farm. They have no interest in a livelihood where profits and losses depend on the weather and 12-hour work days are common.

"I discouraged my kids right from the start," says Jack Moore, a hearty 70-year-old.

Jack and Gus Moore were born on the farm and lived as children in the two-story stone building that serves as a fruit and vegetable store.

They drove tractors while in elementary school, helping out on a farm where horses were used to plow cornfields.

"This was in the 1940s, and it wasn't that uncommon," says Gus Moore.

Both graduated from Kenwood High School in Essex. Other than Gus' three-year stint in the Army in the 1950s, neither has lived away from the farm.

"We never saw a reason to leave," says Gus.

In deciding to sell now, the Moores have an eye on the effect this year's Baltimore County Comprehensive Rezoning Process -- in which zoning regulations for every county parcel are subject to County Council review -- could have on their property.

In 1996, county officials rezoned the Moores' land -- cutting back the number of homes that could be built per acre from 10 houses to three, decreasing its value, the Moores say.

The Moores are reluctant to discuss the value of their land, and they refuse to disclose the selling price. But they feel strongly that the government has no business changing zoning codes that affect it.

"It's a property rights issue," Gus Moore says. "Why should they be able to tell me what I can and can't do with my land?"

Louis Ensor, president of the Baltimore County Farm Bureau, which represents farmers, says many farmers share the Moores' concerns about the county's zoning regulations. While land prices go higher and higher, farmers are being squeezed out by pressures that development creates to sell out, Ensor says.

"Development and farming mix like oil and water," Ensor says.

Any discussion of the Moores' farm inevitably leads to talk about how quickly the land around it is being developed.

Gus Moore says he has no problem with dense housing developments springing up. What bothers him are the housing prices, which he says are "going through the roof."

In Honeygo, a proposed community of 4,200 homes west of the Moore farm, prices for a single-family home are expected to average about $270,000, according to real estate experts. The County Council tightened zoning codes last week for Honeygo, increasing the lot sizes required for homes and specifying the types of building materials that must be used.

A spokeswoman for Ryland says homes built on the Moores' farm would be in the $300,000 range.

"We're pricing our children out of these communities," says the younger brother. "Only the elite will be able to afford to live there."

Gus and Jack Moore say that after the land is sold, they plan to remain in their family homes, which are on the farm.

Jack Moore and his wife will probably do some traveling, to Europe and to South America.

Gus Moore, who is divorced, is more likely to stay close to home, spending as much time as possible with his two daughters and his four grandchildren.

Gus Moore says that even though he will remain at the farm, he would like to see as many homes as possible built on the family's orchards.

"The more people who could build their own home here and have their share of the American dream, the happier I'd be," he says.

Pub Date: 9/15/99

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