Seeds of dissent sown over family farm

Howard Co.'s need for school land poses condemnation threat

February 11, 2000|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

For more than a half-century, the Baugher family has sold apples, peaches, pears, nectarines, tomatoes, corn, squash and other locally grown goodies at their roadside produce stand on scenic New Cut Road in Ellicott City.

James and Joan Baugher grow the produce on their 13-acre farm off Montgomery Road, a farm they hope to leave to their 12 grandchildren one day.

But the Howard County school board has a different vision for the land. It sees the land as a potential site for an elementary school in one of the most crowded regions in the county -- and it has threatened to condemn the land if the Baughers do not agree to sell.

Although the county has the legal right to take the land, the school board's threats have upset not only the Baughers but farm advocates around the state, including U.S. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, who has offered to help the Baughers save their farm.

"This is our livelihood," said Joan Baugher, 63. Her husband James, 69, is the son of Russell Baugher, who owned 21 acres of land across the street until his recent death.

Valerie Connelly, director of government relations for the Maryland Farm Bureau, said it is important to maintain Maryland's remaining farms in the face of rapid development. She noted that there were 20,000 farms in Maryland in the 1960s; fewer than 14,000 remain.

"This flies in the face of state policy to preserve agricultural land to the best of our ability," she said of the condemnation threat.

"Nobody ever knocks down shopping malls or digs up houses to put farms back in. It's kind of a conflict because the state has very strong policies to protect farmland."

The last time the school board went to court to condemn land was in the 1970s, said Sydney Cousin, associate superintendent of finance and operations for the Howard County school system.

Patti Caplan, spokeswoman for Howard County schools, defended the school board's right to take the land if it needs it.

"We've gotten calls from Harford County, all over the place, saying, `How could you do this?' " she said. "We are in desperate need of another elementary school in that area, and property is getting very, very hard to find."

Several sites

Cousin said the Baugher farm is one of several sites the board is considering for a school. He would not say which other properties the school board is looking at, but said the board planned to make a decision by late May or early June.

"If we don't build the school, populations of some area schools will be unacceptably over capacity," he said. "That's one of the reasons we're building a 600-capacity school."

He said the other two elementary schools in the northeast, Rockburn and Ilchester, are over capacity.

"We do not want to condemn people's property," he said. "That would be the last thing we would do with the Baughers' property. We said we wanted to negotiate."

"The Baughers brought this to the media's attention," he said. "Always, we keep our negotiations for property confidential."

Gilchrest called the Baughers this week to offer to help.

"My heart went out to those people," the Republican lawmaker said. "Here we are, desperately trying to hang on to open space, and for the school board to come out with such a visceral, one-sided statement -- that can't be the only site that's available."

`Their dream'

Gilchrest said he plans to contact County Executive James N. Robey, schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey and school board Chairwoman Sandra H. French. He said he also plans to talk to U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, who represents the area, and see what they can do together to help save the Baughers' farm.

"It's only 14 acres," he said. "It's a little place, and you have some people growing fruits and veggies who want to leave it to their grandchildren. It's their dream."

Charles C. Feaga, president of the Howard County Farm Bureau, said he was outraged that the Baughers might lose their land.

"In that area of the county, they represent a small amount of agriculture that's left," he said. "What we're really talking about here is not just preserving agricultural land but the right of an individual to own and do with their property as they have always done."

"The threat of big government has done more to destroy farming than anything else," he said.

Connelly, of the Maryland Farm Bureau, said it is ironic that farmers would be treated this way in a state that puts so much emphasis on protecting farms.

She said Howard County, in particular, has a good reputation for trying to protect farmland.

The county spent about $69 million in the past decade on farmland preservation, said Joseph W. Rutter Jr., director of the county's Department of Planning and Zoning. He said the county is authorized to spend an additional $15 million on farmland preservation in the next fiscal year -- which he said translates to about 2,500 acres.

Final say

The Baughers have hired a lawyer, Fred Coover of Columbia, who hopes the school board will decide to build the school elsewhere.

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