Council OKs farm lease

Members believe landowner, 84, understood terms of agreement to curb building

October 04, 2006|By PHILLIP MCGOWAN | PHILLIP MCGOWAN,Sun reporter

Convinced that the 84-year-old landowner knew what she was signing, the County Council has approved a lease agreement that protects a 400-acre dormant farm in West River from private development.

With the council's 6-0 vote Monday night, the Anne Arundel Soil Conservation District, a quasi-state agency that advocates for and assists farmers, will effectively take over the prized South County tract for the purpose of expanding cattle operations and creating a demonstration farm.

In other matters, the council endorsed a state study that will determine the feasibility of converting Fort Meade's shuttered equestrian center into a federal animal quarantine center and heard the county's election administrator defend last month's primary election as "successful" despite numerous difficulties.

Just one of a flurry of bills and resolutions taken up during the council's penultimate meeting of its four-year term, the approval of the West River lease preserves the good will established with the family of Mary Kinder, who agreed to sell the farm to the county for $2.8 million.

Representatives of Kinder, who is in declining health, brokered a sale agreement this summer that seeks to preserve farm operations.

The Soil Conservation District intends to sublease parcels to farmers and use those proceeds to pay for the farm's upkeep. If the funds dry up, the county could take control of the land and convert it for one of several public purposes.

Language inserted into the sales agreement at the behest of Kinder's representatives would grant the county permission to designate that land to accommodate a school, a hospital or ball fields.

Council members delayed a final vote on the lease for two weeks so they could be certain that Kinder understood the possibility that her land could be converted for a use other than farming.

News of the postponement brought Kinder to tears and frustrated her representatives, who had declined offers to sell the land for private development. The property was appraised this year at $4.6 million.

"I am thrilled for the county and thrilled for the Kinder family," County Executive Janet S. Owens said yesterday. "The county is getting this land at such a great price. It would have been easier for her [Mary Kinder] to sell this land to developers, but she is committed to the future."

Neither Kinder nor her representatives attended the council meeting, but some spoke with selected council members, including Cathleen M. Vitale, in the lead-up to Monday's meeting. A Republican who represents the Broadneck Peninsula, Vitale raised concerns two weeks ago related to the Smith Farm dispute.

In 1998, a Betsy Gleaves sold to the county a 12-acre tract on the peninsula with the understanding that the local government would turn the site into an equestrian riding center.

But a clause in the agreement allowed for the land to be converted to "recreational use." Eventually, under the Owens administration, an athletic field was built on the site, a decision that infuriated Gleaves but was supported by a Circuit Court judge.

Vitale said she got the assurances she needed after speaking with Kinder's attorney, Douglas N. Silber. "I'm pleased to know she clearly understands the possible uses," she said.

Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk, an Annapolis-area Democrat, was unsatisfied, however, and failed in an attempt to hold the bill until Oct. 16. She said that building ball fields will hurt environmentally sensitive areas on the farm tract. Natural springs on the property form the headwaters of Rockhold Creek.

"It's unclear to me still that Ms. Kinder understands this," said Samorajczyk, who also questioned the use of county bonds, rather than agricultural preservation funds, to buy the Kinder property. She abstained from voting on the measure.

Other colleagues worried about jeopardizing the deal by further delaying the vote.

"Ball fields are a worst-case scenario. ... Ball fields are better than homes," Councilman Ronald C. Dillon Jr. said.

The council also voted 6-1 to approve $20,000 in state funding for a state Agriculture Department feasibility study for an animal quarantine center that would serve the mid-Atlantic region. The home councilman, Democrat Bill D. Burlison of Odenton, voted against the measure, citing the potential environmental damage posed by such a facility.

At the beginning of the meeting, the county elections administrator, Barbara Fisher, laid out four problems her staff incurred on Election Day: a shortage of judges; lack of training of some judges; technical issues with the electronic poll registries; and the brief misplacement of several electronic memory cards, which held more than 6,000 votes.

Candidates in competitive primary races - including Republicans vying for the county executive nomination - were frustrated that election officials had counted just two-thirds of the vote by 3 a.m. Sept. 13, and that the full vote count from the county's 189 precincts was not completed for another 18 hours.

Despite the complications, Fisher called the vote "successful," noting that her staff certified the vote by the state deadline.

"I would like to point out that that election was not compromised," Fisher said. A full-scale mock election was being held yesterday over 13 hours at the BWI Airport Marriott to re-evaluate the machines' effectiveness.phill.mcgowan@baltsun.com

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