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Creamery at center of fight over meaning of agricultural preservation

The Prigel family creamery, Bellevale Farm, is at the center of the agricultural preservation debate.

Every afternoon around three o’clock, the 180 cows of Bellevale Farm shuffle across Long Green Road with swollen udders, ready to be milked.

Five hundred gallons of milk are pumped daily at the 280-acre Glen Arm farm, one of the last remaining dairy farms in Baltimore County and the only one that’s certified organic. The milk is trucked away several times a week by a processor, Horizon Organic, to plants in Virginia or upstate New York.

Bobby Prigel, Bellevale’s fourth-generation owner, estimated that if a gallon of organic milk sells for $7, Bellevale receives approximately $2.50 per gallon.

“We can’t stay in business the way we’ve been doing it,” Prigel said.

So Prigel wants to open the Prigel Family Creamery on his property, cutting out the middle man.

He has constructed a 10,000-square-foot processing plant fronted by a retail shop. There, he and his family will sell organic milk, and cheese, ice cream, butter and yogurt produced from the milk of his own cows — and only, he insists, his own cows.

But, for now, the building remains just a shell, the subject of litigation and administrative appeals.

The problem is, not everyone agrees that what Prigel is doing is preservation.

“It’s just going to snowball,” said Susan Yoder, one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit seeking to stop the creamery. “We’ve worked so hard to preserve this valley.”

The Yoders’ farm has been in the family since 1854 and overlooks the Prigel property. It is also a dairy farm, with 35 cows on 125 acres.

Yoder said she understands Bobby Prigel’s desire to diversify his operations to ensure his farm’s survival — the Yoders sell pumpkins in the fall and give tours of their farm, and Susan Yoder also drives a school bus, a job that provides health insurance.

But there is a right way and wrong way to go about diversification, she said.

“You don’t just go out to an open field and tear up the topsoil,” she said. “There are so many ways you can do it without literally destroying the farm.”

Agriculture as an industry

The fight over Bobby Prigel’s creamery boils down to just one question: What is agricultural preservation?

To Prigel and his supporters, it means ensuring farms remain economically viable.

“You have to preserve the industry of agriculture,” said Prigel’s lawyer John B. Gontrum, of Whiteford, Taylor & Preston LLP in Towson. “You have to make it a viable business in order for people to survive.”

The state agrees with him. Even though Prigel gave up the right to commercialize the site in 1997, when he put 180 acres into agricultural preservation in exchange for nearly $800,000, the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation supports his plan.

Baltimore County is on board, too. Even though creameries are specifically permitted only in light manufacturing zones, the deputy zoning commissioner ruled that Prigel’s plans fall squarely within the definition of “dairying,” an agricultural use.

“Frankly, it’s difficult to imagine anything more in line with the spirit and intent” of a rural conservation zone, the Deputy Zoning Commissioner Thomas H. Bostwick wrote.

“[T]he concept of ‘agricultural preservation’ includes taking steps to preserve agricultural businesses rather than simply preserving open space and pastures and attractive views of the countryside for non-farmers who happen to live in agricultural areas,” Bostwick wrote.

The structure sits on about half an acre of the land that was previously an open field.

Opponents of Prigel’s plan said they object more to the location of the facility than Prigel’s business idea.

“I would like to see him do what he wants to do,” said Edward L. Blanton Jr., who’s lived on eight acres next to Prigel for 40 years or more and is an officer in the 350-family Long Green Valley Association, another challenger. “I’m not happy where he wants to do it.”

Prigel’s cows walk beside the new creamery building every day on their way to their afternoon milking across the road. The building, with its cow weathervanes on top, faces Prigel’s home across Long Green Drive and has a matching eggplant and beige exterior.

Inside, orange lines cross the dirt floor to mark the rooms where the raw milk will be standardized and separated, the ice cream and cheese will be made and the products will be stored in coolers and freezers. A wood frame at the front of the building delineates the farmers’ market area, approximately 1,400 square feet.

The Long Green Valley Association supported Prigel’s plans initially in September 2007. It withdrew its support six months later after learning the creamery would be bigger and not located where Prigel originally indicated, said Carol Trela, the association’s secretary.

The half acre Prigel chose is within the agricultural preservation easement; and it’s across the road from where the cows are milked, so the milk will have to be trucked to the creamery. That requires an access drive, which some fear could be expanded for commercial use.

Blanton and others question why Prigel did not house the creamery elsewhere on his property, or even in one of Glen Arm’s abandoned warehouses, where zoning would not be an issue.

Prigel, though, has said the creamery was built specifically to handle only as much milk as his herd produces, and that using milk from other sources is not feasible for an organic dairy like his.

As for the site, he said it is the only place on his own property that will support the restrooms the facility is required to have.

And he wanted to use his own land instead of buying additional property, he said.

“What sells this is the fact people can see the cows grazing as they eat their ice cream cones,” he said.

Lawmakers’ intent

What J. Carroll Holzer sees is not preservation but commercialism.

Holzer became Baltimore County attorney in 1975, the same year the county implemented the R.C.2 rural conservation zone to stop urban sprawl.

“This was a legislative effort to preserve this land for the farmers,” said Holzer, who served as county attorney until 1979. “If we didn’t reduce the density, we were going to lose agriculture as a major industry in Baltimore County.”

“Agricultural operations,” including “dairying,” were given top priority in the R.C.2 zone. Farm markets and certain “agricultural support” uses, including grain mills, slaughterhouses, wineries and farm machinery service, are allowed by special exception. There is no mention of creameries, which are specifically authorized in light manufacturing zones.

Prigel sought a special exception for the farm market segment of his building, which was granted this summer.

Holzer, now a Towson solo practitioner who is representing the community association on the zoning issues, filed a petition in April seeking a special hearing to determine if the creamery is allowed in an R.C.2 zone.

“I think this creamery goes against the efforts of the R.C. zone,” Holzer said. It was “never intended to allow manufacturing in the way it is proposed here,” he added.

But Bostwick, the county’s deputy zoning commissioner, said Holzer and his clients were taking “too narrow a view” of the zoning regulations.

The creamery “is a direct extension of the use of the property as a farm for commercial agriculture,” he wrote. “Put simply, the proposed facility is merely another component of commercial agriculture.”

Bostwick granted the special exception for the store and denied Holzer’s request for a special hearing on the creamery.

The opponents, he said, were “trying to bootstrap their view of how the Prigels should conduct their dairying business.”

The ‘holy grail’

Steven Weber, a former president of both the Maryland and Baltimore County farm bureaus, agreed.

“This is a no-brainer to me,” said Weber, of Weber’s Cider Mill Farm in Parkville and president of Maryland Farm Direct Market Association. “It’s not development run wild.”

Weber called creamery opponents “a few bullies with money” who are obstructing an aspiring direct-market farmer at a time when local markets are growing in popularity. There were more than 4,600 farmers’ markets nationwide as of August, up 7 percent from two years ago, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The creamery would give the Prigels the “holy grail” of organic, sustainable agriculture, said Weber.

“Does it get any better than Baltimore County people buying local food?” he asked.

The county’s Department of Economic Development does not think so. The agency approved a $250,000 loan toward the creamery as part of its effort to help small and midsized farms continue active farming, said Chris McCollum, the agricultural liaison. Active farming generates $300 million annually in the county, he added.

McCollum said he liked the Prigels’ business plan and organic approach. The loan would not only help the creamery business but could also help the farm’s yield and productivity, making the land too profitable for development, he said.

“Active farming is an important part of our preservation efforts,” McCollum said. “The more successful he can be, the more likely he will continue farming and the more likely we’ll continue seeing the agricultural land preserved.”

Prigel ensured the land would be preserved for farming in 1997, when he sold the easement to nearly two-thirds of his property to the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation. The foundation has bought easements on more than 265,000 acres from 2,000 Maryland farms since its inception in 1977, a total public investment of $350 million.

Once the foundation purchases an easement, the land cannot be used for commercial, industrial or residential development, according to the state Department of Agriculture, which oversees the foundation. A 2003 law gave the foundation broad discretion to determine if a proposed use falls under one of those three categories, but Prigel’s opponents argue it does not apply to the 1997 easement.

Prigel made his creamery proposal to the foundation in August 2007. Its board of trustees approved it two months later, following approval from the local advisory board and a trustee’s visit to Bellevale. No trustee is recorded in the meeting’s minutes as in opposition to the plan.

“It had the criteria we were looking for and the county was looking for,” said James Conrad, the foundation’s executive director. “As far as we’re concerned, it’s approved.”

Conrad declined to comment on the lawsuit because of pending litigation.

Fighting on

Prigel’s opponents have filed an administrative appeal of the zoning decisions that allowed him to operate a farm market and the creamery. They have also filed a lawsuit in Baltimore County Circuit Court, seeking a permanent injunction against Prigel and a writ of mandamus against the foundation to enforce its regulations.

A court hearing scheduled for this month was postponed until the end of February; the zoning appeals will be heard in early February and early March.

The foundation’s lawyers have argued in court filings that the plaintiffs lack standing to seek a writ of mandamus because they are not parties to the agreement between the foundation and Prigel.

Michael R. McCann, a Towson solo practitioner representing the challengers in court, countered that the conservation easement creates a “charitable trust” enforceable by interested taxpayers — the same position the foundation has taken in cases where it is seeking to halt development, he said.

Beyond their legal standing, the creamery’s opponents say the foundation did not follow its own guidelines in approving the plan.

“I’m not happy the county and state are turning away from a policy that was dedicated to prevent manufacturing in rural, agricultural areas,” Blanton said.

Gontrum, Prigel’s lawyer, said fears of such development are unfounded.

“I guess they’re afraid it would be a major dairy farm going in there,” he said. “Bobby said all he wants to do is process his own milk.”

Should Bobby Prigel not be able to process his own milk, he said he is prepared to sell his farm. He shook his head thinking about the controversy the Prigel Family Creamery has caused, but remains steadfast in his goal of ensuring a fifth generation can work and live off the land.

“We have to do this,” he said. “Every generation has continued to fight for farming. My fight is just a little different.”