Mike Mullinix and his brothers say they didn't think they were doing anything revolutionary when they started leasing a small section of their western Howard County farm to a landscaper nearly 20 years ago.
The fate of that exercise in diversification could set a precedent by redefining "agriculture" for hundreds of farmers across the state.
What began as a zoning violation has turned into an angry debate about how owners ought to use farm land that has been stripped of its development rights. The rules are set by the state, and the Mullinixes are trying to get the rules changed.
Their effort will ease restrictions on thousands of acres of preserved land or reinforce the notion that - on preservation parcels, at least - agriculture is agriculture and business is business.
Community leaders in the western Howard town of Dayton are all too aware of the effect this case in their back yards could have, and they hope the quest is quashed. They see the Mullinixes as double-dipping scofflaws who are doing exactly what the state paid them not to do.
"If you put your land in rural preservation, preserve it - and use it for farming. End of discussion," said Ted Davis, president of the Dayton Community Association. "I think it's most unfortunate that Mr. Mullinix thinks that he's not bound by the terms of the contract."
The Mullinixes, who raise grain, corn, soybeans and beef cattle on about 1,900 acres they own and rent across Howard County, said they worked out the land-leasing arrangement on one of their farms in Dayton years ago, before or about the same time that they sold the development rights to the state.
The agreement with the state, known as an easement, controls what can be done on the property. Maryland agriculture officials say space for a landscaping company is one of the forbidden activities because no industrial or commercial uses are permitted.
Mike Mullinix, 44, said his family had no idea when it agreed in 1984 to preserve its land that it was giving up anything but residential subdivision rights.
Told otherwise in 1999, he and his two brothers asked state agriculture officials to permit the landscaping use. The officials refused. Now the Mullinixes are preparing for a campaign to reinterpret the regulations so that landscaping is considered farm-related.
`Trying to survive'
"I'm not big on rolling over and playing dead," said Mike Mullinix. "We're just trying to survive. We have bills to pay, and they're huge."
"We're not making any money in agriculture," agreed brother Steve Mullinix, 46.
Mark Mullinix, 42, said, "If they want to keep agriculture in this county, they've got to let us subsidize ourselves somehow."
The Mullinixes, who run one of the biggest farm operations in a county known for small farms, say they learned to diversify long ago.
That's why they opened their farm, lawn and garden equipment store on the family homestead off Howard Road. That's why they agreed to rent one barn and less than 2 acres on the 203-acre farm next door to a landscaping contractor. (Without that income, the land wouldn't generate enough money to cover its taxes, Mike Mullinix said.)
That's also why they decided to sell preservation easements to the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation on most of the 700 acres they own in Howard County.
The Mullinixes' equipment store isn't a problem because it doesn't sit on preserved acreage. For years, the conflict between the landscaping operation and the land it sits on went unnoticed.
What brought it to light is that the Mullinixes don't have zoning approval for the business. In 1999, someone complained to Howard County planners, who found not only the landscaping company, but also septic tank trucks and large trash containers on the site.
Howard County District Court ordered the Mullinixes to remove the trucks and trash bins but did not insist that the landscaping company leave. That's because the brothers could ask for zoning approval from the county, which they have done. They are to appear before the county Board of Appeals on Feb. 19.
Joseph W. Rutter Jr., the county's planning director, says the landscaping operation is in line with criteria for Howard's "conditional use" regulations. But he's recommending denial because the county requires compliance with all rules and restrictions, including ones set by state easements.
The Mullinixes realize that. But Mike Mullinix is hoping for approval anyway as leverage to sway the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation's board of trustees.
"I would be interested to see how they make the argument," said Jim Conrad, the foundation's new administrator. "Certainly, nothing's ever perfectly cut-and-dried."
Rutter appears sympathetic. He points out that, unlike farmers in the state program, farmers who sell their development rights to Howard County's preservation program can lease their land as the Mullinixes have.