Park plans are no picnic for Howard farmers

They fear development will encroach on their recreation offerings

January 16, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Where dairy cows once roamed, farm owner Tim Dowd watches people in sweat clothes exercising on expensive machines in a three-story, milk-colored building on his property in western Howard County.

Not far away, in West Friendship, Randall Nixon works on plans to add a retreat and conference center to the new banquet room he's built atop the century-old beams of what once was a barn on his family's 160-acre farm. In nearby Woodbine, Fenby Moore waits for spring and the dozens of suburbanites who will pick berries and supplement his family's earnings at Larriland Farm.

These are examples of diversification, in the lingo of modern farming -- finding new ways to prosper on the land. But the entrepreneurs say the county government that encourages rural preservation in western Howard is also trying to undermine them with a long-planned regional park in Glenwood.

They oppose plans for large picnic pavilions, community center exercise programs, an amphitheater and spring and fall activities that could compete with and hurt their businesses. Other residents are critical, too. While supporting the park and the development of playing fields, they fear features like the pavilions and amphitheater could draw big crowds and alcoholic beverages to their quiet community.

At a standing-room-only meeting of more than 300 people at Dowd's banquet hall Monday night, Nixon cast the fight in broad terms.

"This is a loosely formed confederation called Citizens for Preservation of Western Howard County," Nixon told the crowd, explaining his purpose is to preserve "our way of life in the west, and the farm community." Keeping new homes off farmland is only part of the struggle, he said later.

"Saving the land is important, but saving farm families and that way of life is even more significant. You need someone to till the soil," he said, recounting his attempt to hire a local teen for farm work years ago, only to have the youth say his allowance was higher than the wages he would earn. "He got in his BMW and drove away."

Gary J. Arthur, the county's recreation director, said the plans are designed to strengthen that way of life and give people what they want.

The picnic pavilions would help alleviate a shortage. Arthur said so many people want to rent one of the 18 picnic pavilions in county parks that some are turned away. A library is also being built, at the park's edge, along with a fire station and a combination senior/community center. Development of the park is expected to begin this year.

"We don't want to compete against Nixon's, the Circle D Farm or Larriland," Arthur said, noting the three exercise machines in the community center wouldn't compete with the fully equipped health club in Dowd's building.

Debate about the park underscores the uncertain future of farming, even in an area that county officials agreed should be kept more pastoral than developed.

In 1998, Howard had 318 farms -- 114 fewer than it had in 1987, said Charles Feaga, county Farm Bureau president and a former county councilman. The number continues to drop, he said, as much because of a lack of labor as any other cause.

Farm owners are "going to have to do two or three [other] things to continue farming. I think 30 or 40 years from now, we probably won't see the same type of farming we see today," Feaga said.

The Nixon family has had numerous offers from developers who would like to carve up its farm for more suburban mini-mansions, said Nixon, but it has always refused.

"We've been here for 50 years. We're committed to staying here. I like doing what I'm doing," said the 43-year-old former corporate lawyer.

He speaks almost mystically about being born and raised in "the west," and gleefully recounts his preteen mortification at being driven to elementary school once on the family tractor -- his father, Roosevelt, at the wheel -- when his mother's car refused to start.

In the 1950s, when Roosevelt Nixon bought his farm in West Friendship, blacks like himself were excluded from private social clubs. He bought farmland partly as a place where minorities could gather socially. It was called Glenwood Country Club.

His widow, Mildred, changed the name to Nixon's Farm because, she said, "I wanted a farm, and I wanted it to be productive. I wanted to show people -- kids -- how to produce things."

The result -- part picnic grounds and banquet hall, part rolling fields of hay and alfalfa -- is unique among Howard's farms, she said.

Income from the crops pays the taxes, said Randall Nixon, who is preparing to build a new kitchen on the banquet room in hopes of promoting more winter activities. To help do that, the Nixon family plans to begin offering small, educational plays for school groups, starting with one next month on the history of Howard County's part in the Underground Railroad, which helped slaves escape.

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