Plan for a creamery puts farmers at odds

Neighbors sue over dairy farm's effort to diversify

March 08, 2009|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,

The Yoder and Prigel families have worked for generations on adjoining dairy farms in northern Baltimore County, their cows sometimes grazing in each other's fields.

Now, except for arguments made in legal proceedings, these Long Green neighbors are barely speaking, and the wrangling is taking a financial toll.

"When I started this, I budgeted about $500 for legal fees," Bobby Prigel said. "I have spent well over $100,000."

Their conflict centers on the creamery that Prigel has built - but has yet to open - at his Bellevale Farm and his plans to sell organic products made from the milk his cows produce. The Yoders and several other Long Green residents insist that a commercial enterprise has no place in a valley where numerous farms, including those of the Yoders and Prigels, are permanently safeguarded from development through state and county preservation programs.

"You look out and see an industrial milk plant in the middle of all this preserved land," Sue Yoder said. "This is no different than having Cloverland sitting in a rural area. Preservation is all about saving land for the future. With this operation, we are losing farm ground to a business."

Prigel countered that his entire farm is productive and that the quarter-acre the creamery occupies "will probably be the most productive on the whole 260-acre farm."

A county zoning administrator has twice upheld Prigel's right to operate the business, but those decisions are on hold, pending an appeal of the zoning ruling. In addition, creamery opponents have sued the state's preservation program.

"It is hard to imagine a negative impact stemming from the operation of a family-run organic dairy farm in the center of many acres of farmland owned by that same family," Thomas Bostwick, the county's deputy zoning commissioner, wrote in his ruling.

The County Council has scheduled a public hearing next month on the county Planning Board's recommendation that the law be changed to allow creameries in a rural conservation zone.

Several council members said they are withholding comment until they have heard both sides of an issue that pits the interests of land preservation against those of agricultural diversity.

Yoder argues for tradition and maintaining the sweeping views of the valley near Loch Raven Reservoir.

"There is no sense to build something this size here," she said.

Prigel said he must adapt to the market to stay profitable.

"Farming has always changed, and we have to change with it," he said. "You can't stay in farming today unless you diversify. This is way too big to be a hobby."

At Land of Promise Farm, John and Sue Yoder also raise dairy cows and sell the milk to a major processor. They open for school tours, pumpkin picking and other agribusiness activities. "We all diversify," she said. "Nobody is against that, but it has to be on a scale appropriate for this area."

Neighbors bristle at the creamery's location, across Long Green Road from Prigel's home. When Sue Yoder stands on her front porch, the creamery's purple roof dominates her view of the valley.

"Change is good, but change that hurts your neighbors is not good," she said. "We are not out west with 3,000 acres between us."

J. Carroll Holzer, a former county attorney who now represents the Yoders and the Long Green Valley Association, said conservation zoning was established to help farmers preserve their land.

"If you open this zone to industrial and commercial uses, this is a major intrusion into the original intent," he said. "If you allow this, how would you stop a cannery or a meat processor?"

The creamery is on land for which the state paid Prigel nearly $1 million in preservation funds in 1997.

The community association's suit against the state contends that Prigel has violated his preservation agreement.

"When you are paid to preserve, you give up the right to industrial and commercial development," Yoder said. "His easement states that he cannot do commercial development. Citizens should not have to sue to make the state abide by its contracts."

Preservation does not deter a farmer from processing and selling what is produced on the farm, said James A. Conrad, executive director of the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation.

"It is slightly misleading to call this operation a creamery," Conrad said. "The farm will not be collecting milk from three states. This is on-site production in line with traditional uses of farmland."

The creamery fits well with the demand for local products, said Wally Lippincott, Baltimore County's preservation program manager. "This is a small operation producing local products for people who have helped pay for preserving this land," Lippincott said. "The building is not out of scale. We have seen barns larger than this."

Both Prigel and the neighborhood association have taken their arguments to County Council members.

"I will take every avenue I can find to move this project along," Prigel said. "Without it, I can't stay in farming."

If he has to sell his farm, Prigel said, he would move far away. "It would hurt too much to stay," he said.

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