Neighbors wary of Woodbine farm plans

Couple's desire to open up site for occasional events stirs concern over the area's future

March 07, 2010|By Larry Carson | larry.carson@baltsun.com

Robert and Maxine Walker have sunk 15 years' work and tons of money into restoring and improving their white 1840 farmhouse along with the barns, sheds, fences and 145 acres around them on Jennings Chapel Road in Woodbine, near the Patuxent River.

Their neighbors in Howard's rural, hilly horse country credit them with an admirable job at Harwood Farm, where all but 10.5 acres of the horse and grain farm is permanently protected from development.

"Their farm is a beauty spot on Jennings Chapel Road," said G. Gordon Kirwan, Jr., who lives across the road.

But at an age when many couples yearn to slow down in a low-maintenance retirement condominium, the Walkers want to raise money for more renovations by opening an antiques store in an old shed near their hilltop home, and by occasionally renting out a small portion of their property for outdoor social events for up to 150 people. Each November, they host several hundred people for the Iron Bridge Hounds fox hunt, they said, without any problems.

Some neighbors support their conditional-use zoning request - the first attempt to use a 2006 county zoning law change sponsored by former County Councilman Charles C. Feaga - but others are strongly opposed, fearing heavy weekend traffic, noise, drunken drivers and creeping commercialization. The case is due to be aired before the county's hearing examiner at 6 p.m. April 5 in the county's temporary offices at 8930 Stanford Blvd. in east Columbia.

"What I hate the most is changing the character of Jennings Chapel," said neighboring farmer Lambert Cissel, 71. "This is a designated scenic road." Cissel and others worry about how future owners of Harwood Farm would use the new zoning, if granted, but the Walkers are dreaming of their own plans.

"We want to make this farm much more beautiful," said Maxine Walker, 69.

Her husband agreed. "I don't belong to a country club, I don't have a boat. Horses are my pleasure," said Robert Walker, 70. He says jokingly that he's retired but still works seven days a week.

He'd like to replace oak flooring with more authentic pine in one room in the house, expose another walled-in original fireplace, knock down an old shed, build a new brood barn and replace more fencing, among other things. Over the years, the couple gutted the house and restored it to near-pristine condition, renovated the existing 1840 barn with a new concrete floor, wood stalls and tack rooms, a shiny metal roof and bright yellow and green exterior paint to match their racing colors. But all that takes money, they said.

"Whatever you think it costs, it costs twice as much," Robert Walker said. Still, the Walkers say they are sensitive to the concerns of nearby residents, too.

"We would not want to do anything to adversely affect our neighbors," said Maxine Walker.

Under the law, areas designated as "limited outdoor social assembly areas" can be allowed on a farm of more than 5 acres, if near a historic site or structure, for up to 25 times per year for up to 150 people during specified hours. There can be no permanent structures built, and nearby residential properties must be shielded from noise. Events such as picnics, retirement parties, weddings, bridal or baby showers, fundraisers for nonprofit groups or rehearsal dinners would have to use tents and portable toilets that must be removed within three days after an event.

The Walkers, who said they lived most of their working lives in a small rowhouse in Washington, do have local supporters.

Janice Brice, who keeps two horses on her 6 acres across Jennings Chapel Road from Harwood Farm, favors their idea.

"It would be a wonderful place for the equestrian community to have events," she said, and an outdoor wedding would be pretty and possibly more economical. "I don't have any objections," she said.

Kirwan submitted a letter of support praising the Walkers' stewardship of their property and noting no complaints from the annual hunt event, despite scores of vehicles, horse trailers and trucks.

"If the Walkers want to open their farm to the occasional wedding reception, please let them do it," Kirwan wrote.

Like many other farm owners, the Walkers are looking for a financial boost beyond the income from horse boarding and breeding, and from renting their fields for grain farming.

"Farmers are more and more leaning to diversify and use the public" to help pay the bills, said Howie Feaga, president of the Howard County Farm Bureau. "It's always controversial," he said, which is why the bureau rarely gets involved in individual cases.

But other neighbors fear that approval would change the area forever.

"I have a lot of respect for Mr. Walker. He's a very good neighbor," said Cissel, who lives with his wife, Marge, in a stone and log home they built on their 140-acre turf farm just north of Harwood Farm.

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