Balto. Co. farm families get nod from Md. high court

Suburban clashes pit neighbors against farmers with side businesses

June 28, 2013|By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun

Springfield Farm owner David Smith is finally preparing to build the roadside stand he and his family first proposed in Baltimore County in 2006.

The Maryland Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, recently declined to hear the case of neighbors who opposed the plan, which they argued would diminish the rural nature of their stretch of Yeoho Road in Sparks. The neighbors saw Smith's plan as a large distribution center that would sell a wide range of products.

The court decision last month ended a years-long legal fight over what constitutes a farmer's roadside stand. It was one of several suburban clashes around the Baltimore region where struggling farmers have tried to diversify their business and, in so doing, have drawn their neighbors' ire. The new enterprises have stoked a debate over what commercial activities should be allowed on agricultural land.

Courts have settled some of the issues. In another ruling this week, the Court of Appeals weighed in on the case of the Prigel family, who fought to open a creamery at Bellevale Farm, also in Baltimore County. While the partial victory doesn't resolve that long-running dispute, it allays fears that a different ruling could have opened farmers to more litigation.

Smith said his three-story barn would be a place to sell eggs, meat and other food produced at his farm and elsewhere. He and his family have been washing eggs and selling to drive-up customers for years out of their basement and garage, and wanted to expand to meet growing demand for locally raised food. They applauded the court's decision.

"There was a cork or two popped," Smith said.

Attorney Michael McCann, who represented the opponents, had argued successfully in Circuit Court that a roadside stand could not be part of a larger structure. The case continued after the County Council voted in 2011 to change the local code's definition of a "farmer's roadside stand," giving Smith the permission he needed, McCann said.

"The County Council stepped in and changed the law, which they have the prerogative to do," said McCann.

After the Court of Special Appeals granted permission for the stand, the county People's Counsel, which represents the interests of the public in zoning matters, asked the higher court to hear the case. In late May, the justices declined.

The impact of the roadside stand planned for Springfield Farm, and whether it becomes what neighbors fear, "remains to be seen," McCann said.

The Court of Appeals also ruled this week in favor of the Prigel family on an issue related to who has legal standing to object in such cases.

The creamery started making and selling ice cream in September 2010, as legal proceedings were still going on, and will continue, owner Bobby Prigel said. The creamery, located in a 10,000-square-foot building on Long Green Road in Glen Arm, has the county's and the state Department of Agriculture's permission to operate.

Prigel's great-grandfather started farming the land as a sharecropper in the late 19th century, and he said he's confident his business will prevail in court.

"We were willing to risk everything," Prigel said, "and still are."

While the appellate court didn't weigh in on the Prigels' right to operate the creamery, a state agriculture official and Prigel's attorney said the decision could have hampered Maryland's efforts to preserve farmland.

The court was asked to settle a claim raised by John and Susan Yoder, who live near the Prigel Family Creamery. They argued that the Prigels do not have the right to operate a creamery, saying it is a commercial/industrial operation not allowed under the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation agreement the Prigels made when they sold their development rights in 1997.

The question was whether that agreement created a charitable trust. If the court had decided it did, people who were not neighbors with a direct interest in the property could have the right to sue to enforce the agreement. The high court upheld the Circuit Court and the Court of Special Appeals, deciding that the agreement, or easement, did not create a charitable trust.

Carol West, executive director of MALPF, which approved the Prigel creamery, said she had been watching the case closely. The state program has preserved nearly 286,000 acres since 1977 at a cost of more than $617 million.

"It's very important to us," West said. She said a different decision could have discouraged farmers from joining the program out of fear of opening themselves up to lawsuits from a wide array of people.

"It gives them a level of comfort to know someone across town or elsewhere doesn't have the right to sue them," West said.

The Yoders still have legal standing as neighbors, however, meaning their case against the Prigels will continue in Circuit Court.

McCann, who also represents the Yoders in this case, said they will continue to press their argument that the state program is intended to "preserve land and open space primarily," and that the creamery isn't farming.

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