Md. Farm Family Wants Land out of Preservation

1/18/2014 7:00 AM
By Katelyn Parsons D.C. Correspondent

WEST FRIENDSHIP, Md. — According to a survey conducted by the Schaefer Center for Public Policy in 2011, 97 percent of respondents believe that the state should preserve farmland for farming. But the question remains: How do family farms make money on land that is restricted as to what they can do on their own property? This is especially important when future generations may not be interested in farming.

The Mullinix family of Dayton, Md., is trying to answer this question, having placed its farmland in the state’s preservation program more than 25 years ago. However, the contract the Mullinix family signed with the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation, or MALPF, contains a termination clause — easements signed before Oct. 1, 2004, state that the landowner can request to terminate the contract after 25 years if agriculture is no longer a viable use of the land.

“These termination clauses were put in place because no one can predict the future,” said Maryland Secretary of Agriculture Earl “Buddy” Hance. “In certain instances farming may no longer be an option on the land. Right now we have about 1,600 easements in the state that were written before Oct. 1, 2004, that have a termination clause in their contracts.”

On Monday evening, MALPF held a public hearing on the request by Elizabeth Mullinix to terminate the easement that the foundation purchased on her farm more than 25 years ago. This is the family’s fourth termination request — fourth ever in Maryland — and the government’s decision could possibly open the door to other landowners wanting to do the same thing.

The land in question is the family’s 142-acre Howard County farm, known as the Clevenger Farm, located on Union Chapel Road in Woodbine, Md.

“When my husband, David, and I signed the easement contract more than 25 years ago, we did it because of the termination clause,” said Elizabeth Mullinix. “With the county being developed around us, we knew it was only a matter of time until farming would no longer be an option on this piece of land.”

According to Hance, the foundation set the bar high because they wish to keep agricultural land in place. Created by state law in 1977, MALPF acquires easements in farmland and woodland, restricting the land’s use in order to provide sources of agricultural products within the state. An easement may be terminated only if the county governing body, after receiving the recommendation of the county agricultural preservation advisory board, approves it; the foundation determines that profitable farming is no longer feasible on the land; and the Maryland Board of Public Works approves termination.

But as Elizabeth Mullinix explained, her neighbors have made farming downright “unpleasant.”

“From digging turnips to harvesting wheat, we constantly receive complaints,” said Nicole Mullinix, Elizabeth Mullinix’s granddaughter. “The neighbors are not concerned about the farm’s best interest.”

Elizabeth Mullinix also cites safety concerns for her family, who move equipment from miles away to the parcel.

“People have stopped my family to cuss them out for moving the combine on the main road,” she said. “I love the farm, but the roads are particularly dangerous for us to be moving equipment that far.”

While the foundation has made efforts to preserve land in a manner that keeps the properties together for sustainability and viability, Howard County has become very developed with 1,144.9 persons per square mile according to the 2010 U.S. census.

Neighbors may have purchased houses based on the belief that land would remain in agriculture.

If the easement is terminated, the current landowner as well as any future landowner would have the ability to subdivide and develop the land as provided under local zoning laws and regulations, which in the case of this parcel would only be two houses.

“It is not what is more convenient for the board, or the neighbors with fancy houses, but what is more financially feasible and appropriate for the area,” Rachel Mullinix said.

According to the foundation, all properties that wish to terminate their easement must go through the process the Mullinix family is currently working through.

“A contract is a contract and it should be honored,” Nicole Mullinix said.

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