The chairman of the Howard County school board said yesterday it is "extremely unlikely" that the board will condemn the Baugher family farm off New Cut Road in Ellicott City to build an elementary school.
"The bottom line is, if we had a willing seller [of a site] vs. one that had to be condemned, we would look to the willing seller," said Sandra H. French, board chairman. She would not say whether the board had found a willing seller.
Patti Caplan, spokeswoman for Howard County schools, noted a "99.9 percent" chance the Baughers would be able to keep their land because the condemnation proceedings could take too long. The new school needs to open by August 2003.
"A condemnation takes between 18 and 24 months, and it can even run longer than that," Caplan said. "We're more pressed than that. We don't have the time to spare at this point. That's a factor here."
Caplan and French said the board is considering other sites, but they cannot discuss which ones. The board tries to keep the proceedings confidential to keep land costs down, said Sydney Cousin, associate superintendent of finance and operations for the Howard County school system.
In January, James and Joan Baugher received a letter from a lawyer representing the Howard County Board of Education that threatened to condemn their 13-acre farm if they refused to sell.
The Baughers say they have no interest in selling the land. They want to retire on it and one day pass it on to their children and grandchildren.
"There's other land," said Joan Baugher, 63. "They don't have to take our farm."
The Baugher family has farmed the land since 1922, selling home-grown fruits and vegetables at a popular produce stand on scenic New Cut Road in Ellicott City.
Joan Baugher said she was happy to hear that the school board probably won't condemn her farm, but she won't rest easy until she gets a letter saying the board has picked another site to build the school.
"All they got to do is write us a letter and tell us they've found other property," she said.
But Caplan said the board is not ready to write a letter because it wants to reserve the right to condemn the land just in case.
"The board has no plans at this point to condemn anyone's property," Caplan said. "We don't want to say 100 percent because the board should never give up their right [to condemn] -- we don't know down the road what might occur."
Support from residents
Since the story became public last month, the Baughers have received support from residents and several politicians, including Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, state Sen. Christopher J. McCabe and former state Sen. James Clark Jr.
French said she is upset about letters to newspapers that disparage the school board for looking at the Baugher property.
"They have demonized us in this," she said. "I fully empathize over the loss of farmland, but I have not personally profited from any of it."
Caplan said it isn't fair to convey the Baughers as poor farmers at risk of losing their grandchildren's inheritance. She said they recently sold 21 acres of valuable farmland across the street to Glen Mar United Methodist Church for development.
But James Baugher said he owned that land with his five siblings, and although he wanted to keep the land, they wanted to sell it. He said he could not afford to buy his siblings' portion.
Joan Baugher said, after taxes, she and her husband would be lucky to get $60,000 for their portion of the 21 acres.
Fred Coover, an attorney for the Baughers, said the 21 acres has nothing to do with the condemnation threat. He said James Baugher had "no choice" about whether to sell the 21 acres.
Joan Baugher said she and her husband are still waiting for the school board to decide on another piece of property -- and tell them in writing their farm will not be condemned.
"We're just not going to let go till they write this letter," she said.