Family fights for its farm

Farmers: A threat by the Howard school board to condemn the Baugher farm in Ellicott City to make way for a new school angers many, who criticize officials for failure to control growth.

March 17, 2000|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

For almost 80 years, the Baugher family has followed the same routines, year after year, on their small Ellicott City farm: pruning the peach trees in March, planting the tomato seeds in April, thinning the fruit trees in May, harvesting the first vegetables in June.

This year, for the first time, that routine might change. The Howard County Board of Education, desperate for land to build a new elementary school in one of the most crowded regions of the county, has expressed an interest in the Baugher farm and has threatened to condemn the land if the Baughers do not sell.

The Baughers are terrified.

"This is all we've ever wanted to do," said Joan Baugher, who owns the 13-acre farm with her husband, James.

If the school board condemns the Baugher farm, it would mean the end of the family produce stand on New Cut Road, where hundreds of county residents come for apples, peaches, plums and pears and where Joan Baugher sells her homemade preserves.

It would mean the end of a Baugher family tradition: all 12 grandchildren descending on the farm during the summer to help pull weeds, pick fruit and count change at the stand.

Worst of all, it would mean the Baughers couldn't retire on the farm, as they had hoped, and one day leave it to their children and grandchildren.

The story has become a public relations nightmare for the five-member school board since it became public about a month ago. For many residents, the Baughers' plight has come to symbolize everything they feel is wrong with Howard County: overcrowding, a government that doesn't keep developers in check and land planning that doesn't take into account the dreams of two local farmers who have lived in Ellicott City their whole lives.

One of the Baughers' most prominent supporters is former state Sen. James Clark Jr.

"I think it's atrocious they are bothering those poor people," Clark said. "They've been there as long as I can remember. They ought to make the developer set aside a school if they think they're going to need one. It's very poor planning."

Many people are angry that Howard County has approved hundreds of houses on approximately 400 acres owned by the Taylor family, not far from the Baugher farm. The houses will add schoolchildren to already crowded elementary schools, fueling the need for another.

"If the Howard County school board has the power to take property, then I would suggest they take it from the developers who are creating the need for these new schools," said Gary Hunt, an Ellicott City resident and a regular at the farm stand, who blames the Taylor development for creating the need for more schools.

Sandra H. French, chairwoman of the school board, said the issue has been overblown. She said the board is considering several other properties and does not intend to condemn the Baughers' land unless it is absolutely necessary.

"I think the board is very upset that the Baughers were taken aback and that this has caused them grief," French said. "If they were interested in selling the land, that's a different issue. It's not the board's intention ever to distress homeowners."

French said the new school -- whether it is located on the Baugher farm or elsewhere --is scheduled to open in 2003.

The Baughers are not soothed by her reassurances -- especially after receiving a letter in January from Richard D. Neidig, a lawyer for the school board.

"Because the school population in your area is expanding at such a rapid pace, the School System has an immediate need for the property, so that it can commence construction on the proposed Northeast Elementary School," it said. "I can assure you that the local board is ready to determine that your land is required for the construction of the Northeast Elementary School. In essence, if necessary, the Board will exercise its condemnation powers."

Although the school board wanted to keep negotiations quiet, to keep the cost of land down, word got out quickly that the Baughers might lose their farm. Since the story became public last month, the Baughers have circulated petitions, which hundreds of people have signed. They have also received about 20 letters of support.

"I strongly urge [the school board] to consider other options," wrote John C. Rhead of Columbia, who accused the county of "lack of foresight."

"It is already something of a miracle that this family has been able to resist the lure of the profits to be made by selling to a developer," he wrote. "It would seem almost a tragedy to turn around now and force them from their land."

"This area is becoming overdeveloped, which is why we need a new school," wrote Mindy and Tony Lovalvo of Ellicott City. "You should come and experience the feeling people have here going to their farm season after season. People know each other, and it is sort of like going back in time."

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