Council delays farm deal

Panel seeks to ensure elderly seller understands terms of sale

September 20, 2006|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,sun reporter

Hoping to avoid a repeat of the Smith Farm dispute, the Anne Arundel County Council wants assurances that a West River resident understands her decision to sell a 400-acre farm means the county could build a school, a hospital or ball fields there.

Seeking to clarify the owner's intent, the council voted 6-1 Monday night to delay consideration of a proposed 30-year lease of that property between the county and the Anne Arundel Soil Conservation District, which would continue to operate a cattle farm there.

County officials, however, defended the $2.8 million deal signed last month by Mary Kinder, saying that while she wants the property to remain an active farm, she is aware that farming might not always be a practical use.

Language included in the deal at the insistence of Kinder's representatives allows the county to convert the land for several public uses - without Kinder's consent - if farming operations decline.

The concern of council members is that Kinder, who is 84 and in declining health, might not understand that. The terms of that deal, 18 months in the works, were mainly negotiated through power of attorney for Kinder by a cousin Bill Miller, a retired Baltimore County schoolteacher, and lawyer Douglas N. Silber.

County Councilwoman Cathleen M. Vitale asked for a delay of the final vote so that the Office of Law could ask Kinder and her representatives to attend the next council meeting, on Oct. 2.

Neither Kinder nor her representatives attended Monday's meeting.

"I have several sets of questions that I would like to see answers to," Vitale said, as an attorney for the county, Patricia A. Logan, sat in the back of council chambers shaking her head.

Vitale said the county learned a hard lesson when the owner of a 12-acre tract on the Broadneck Peninsula known as the Smith Farm agreed to sell that land in 1998, under the John G. Gary administration. The owner, Betsy Gleaves, said she did so with the understanding that it would be converted into an equestrian riding center.

But a clause in the agreement allowed for the land to be converted to "recreational use." Over the objections of Gleaves, some residents and state lawmakers, current Executive Janet S. Owens put an athletic field on the site. A Circuit Court ruling backed her decision.

"I just don't want to see that happen again," Vitale said.

Betty Dixon, the county's land-use and environment coordinator, who was closely involved in the negotiations, maintained that the proposed lease is acceptable to both parties.

"The property owner's wish is that this remain a working farm," said Dixon, adding that she received personal assurances to that effect from Kinder.

Later in her testimony, Dixon said: "[Kinder] understands that 100 years from now that farming may no longer be viable."

Councilwoman Pamela G. Beidle, a Linthicum Democrat, voiced another concern. She said a large public project on the West River tract could disturb the rural character of South County and spawn outrage among residents over growth and traffic.

The deal appears likely to pass, as it has the support of Council Chairman Edward R. Reilly, a Republican who represents West River. He noted, though, that his colleagues had "a very relevant question."

County officials said they hope to close on the property by December. The $2.8 million was approved as part of the current fiscal budget.

Silber and Miller did not return phone calls yesterday seeking comment.

Miller said at last month's signing ceremony with Owens that he supported giving the county flexibility in how to use the land: "You don't want to tie the county's hands. You have to be sensible for the future."

The proposed 10-year lease has two 10-year options. The annual lease amount would be $1. Under the terms, the Soil Conservation District, which advises and advocates for farmers, could sublet parcels to cattle farmers and to others to grow crops.

Jeffrey F. Opel, manager for the Soil Conservation District, said last month there is high demand for use of the farm for cattle operations.

Councilman Bill D. Burlison, an Odenton Democrat who has frequently sided with Owens, criticized his colleagues for holding up the vote on the lease. He voted against the delay.

"Most of the work tonight demonstrates and is an example of gross micromanaging of county business," he said.

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