County set to buy an almost-dormant farm, reviving productivity and protecting land

Coaxing farm to life again

Reviving and protecting farmland

August 23, 2006|By PHILLIP MCGOWAN | PHILLIP MCGOWAN,SUN REPORTER

The world is as still as the pickets that line a winding path to Mary Kinder's mammoth farm. The two-story Cape Cod is boarded up, the white dairy barn is closed and few cattle remain for the caretaker to watch over.

Just off Sudley Road in West River, Henry and Mary Kinder spent a generation raising cattle and growing old together on about 400 acres of rolling fields. All along, they resolved to protect this place at the headwaters of Rockhold Creek, to keep the encroaching hustle and bustle from knocking on their front door.

It appears that Anne Arundel County will grant their wish. On Monday, County Executive Janet S. Owens signed a preliminary agreement to buy the farm and, in a unique move, revive the long-dormant cattle operations there.

"It's one thing to preserve agricultural land, and another thing to preserve active agricultural land," said Owens, who grew up on a South County farm.

The County Council must approve the $2.8 million deal, and passage is expected as early as Sept. 5. The acquisition would push the county's holdings of preserved farmland to 12,000 acres, with 6,600 of those claimed during the Owens administration. The T-shaped property would help form a contiguous area of nearly 1,000 acres of protected farmland.

The agreement would prohibit private development of the farm but would allow future conversion of the land for a school, a hospital or formal parkland if the farming operation becomes no longer viable.

The county intends to lease the property to the Anne Arundel Soil Conservation District, which assists and advocates for farmers. The district would sublet tracts for cattle producers and for growing crops, then pour that income back into the farm.

"We will have no problem finding people who will use it," said Jeff Opel, Soil Conservation District manager.

Anne Arundel officials also see the educational benefit of an active county-controlled farm.

"We want to have the children of the county see an active working farm," said Betty Dixon, the land-use and environment coordinator, who has been involved in the negotiations with Mary Kinder's representatives since January 2005.

Henry Kinder died in 2002 at age 88. Mary Kinder, 84, lives in a house next to the farm. Declining health prevented her from attending the signing Monday.

The initial lease will cover 10 years and could be extended an additional 20 years. The deal means the farm's caretaker, Virgil Levelle, who has lived at the farm since 1981 and has worked for the Kinders for more than 40 years, will have a home for the rest of his life.

Levelle, 74, doesn't get paid to care for 30 or so cattle on the farm, but the Korean War veteran begins work most mornings by 7:30. Pointing to a hill behind the ranch-style house he lives in, he said it offers views of tractor-trailers crossing the Bay Bridge.

Aside from the buzzing of wasps and the rustling of ankle-high grass, a calming silence permeates the fields that are framed by lines of pine trees.

"Some think it's too quiet," Levelle said.

The property has been worked as a farm since the 1600s. A brochure from 1958 advertised a sale price of $135,000. Throw in the farm equipment, and the cost was $145,000.

Henry Kinder acquired the property in a land swap with the county in 1979. Kinder gave up 288 acres in Severna Park, land that was converted into a county park.

The Kinder family previously operated a 1,100-acre farm that Levelle said stretched along Benfield Road. But the advent of the refrigerated truck made the farm's proximity to the Baltimore market less valuable, and the family began selling its holdings for residential development.

Henry Kinder and Mary Miller married in 1983. Over the years, they saw development creep up along the eastern edge of the property, along Route 468. A 140-home development started going up in the 1990s, a half-mile from the farm entrance.

"Every time you turn around, you see another house on another corner," said Bill Miller, a cousin of Mary Kinder's who participated in the negotiations. "Henry said: `I never want my land to look like this.'"

The land was recently appraised at $4.6 million, said Douglas N. Silber, an attorney representing Mary Kinder.

Silber estimated that Kinder could have commanded even more from developers, especially if she sold the land in pieces. He said the property is large enough to accommodate two 18-hole golf courses and 26 estate homes.

Natural springs on the farm serve as the headwaters for Rockhold Creek, and county officials said preventing private development will protect the sensitive waterway.

Representatives for Mary Kinder said she was determined to protect what will be known as the Miller Farm - Miller was her maiden name. They said she's looking forward to watching large herds of cattle graze the countryside again.

"She wanted to see it get done in her lifetime," Silber said. "She wanted to see this deal come to fruition. Obviously, Mrs. Owens wanted to get the deal done, too."

phill.mcgowan@baltsun.com.

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