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Court of Appeals nixes association’s suit over Prigel Family Creamery

The state’s highest court has affirmed a win for fourth-generation dairy farmer Bobby Prigel and the creamery he operates on Bellevale Farm in northern Baltimore County.

Dairy farmer Bobby Prigel poses outside the Prigel Family Creamery on Monday. The shop opened in 2010 but is still the subject of litigation.

Monday’s decision by the Court of Appeals said the Long Green Valley Association cannot sue to enforce an agricultural preservation easement the state purchased from Bellevale for nearly $800,000.

The community group claimed that the 10,000 square-foot Prigel Family Creamery is a commercial use banned under the easement, not a “farm-related” use as the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation said.

But the group has no right to raise that challenge, the unanimous Court of Appeals held.

While the association said the agricultural preservation easement created a charitable trust that third parties can enforce, Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr. wrote that the program “is market-oriented and profit-driven, even if some consequential benefits flow to the general public in Maryland.”

While that precluded the Long Green Valley Association’s challenge, the creamery is not out of the woods yet.

Monday’s decision does not affect the right of John and Susan Yoder, whose family has held the property next to Bellevale for more than 125 years, to make the same argument, a footnote in Monday’s opinion says.

The case will return to Baltimore County Circuit Court on that issue, said Michael McCann, an attorney for the challengers.

Even so, “it was an important case for the ag pres easement program,” said the Prigels’ attorney, John B. Gontrum, a partner at Whiteford, Taylor & Preston LLP in Towson.

He credited the work of the assistant attorneys general who briefed the court on the ag pres program.

“They explained it; the court ‘got it,’” Gontrum said.

One of those lawyers, Thomas F. Filbert, underscored the state’s position on Monday.

“The purpose of the easement program is to ensure that there is an agricultural industry in the state, and if you don’t preserve sufficient farmland, you’re going to lose your agricultural industry…,” Filbert said. “The purpose is a profit motive.”

MALPF feared a contrary ruling would discourage participation “if the farmer thinks he is opening himself up to lawsuits for legitimate farming operations,” Filbert said.

Bellevale Farm, run by Bobby and Carol Prigel, is the county’s last organic dairy farm. It sold 180 acres into the ag pres program for $796,500 in 1997. At the time, the fair market value of the 197-acre farm was $1.06 million, the Court of Appeals noted.

Ten years later, Bobby Prigel sought MALPF’s approval for the creamery, saying direct sales were crucial to Bellevale’s survival.

The Yoders and Long Green Valley said they supported Prigel’s goals, but not the placement or the precedent it would set.

The litigation over MALPF’s approval is one of three suits they filed to stop production of dairy products and direct sales to the public at Bellevale Farm.

As adjacent landowners, the Yoders can sue because are “presumed aggrieved,” the Court of Special Appeals held in November 2011. That portion of the opinion was never appealed, so it stands.

However, Gontrum said it will be an issue when the case returns to circuit court.

“We will have to find out if they really are aggrieved,” Gontrum said. He said the Yoders’ property and the Prigels’ are on the opposite sides of Long Green Road, and “half a mile away or better, if you’re driving.” He also said they may not even be adjacent.

Despite the ongoing litigation, the Prigel Family Creamery opened in September 2010.

Last year, the Court of Special Appeals decided in the Prigels’ favor in the other two lawsuits, one based on county zoning laws and the other on the state’s health-licensing law.

While the Yoders can continue with the third action, their lawyer was disappointed in Monday’s decision.

“I thought [the existence of a charitable trust] was an important ground for standing,” McCann said.

Daily Record Web Editor Danny Jacobs contributed to this report. 

WHAT THE COURT HELD

Case:

Long Green Valley Ass’n, et al. v. Bellevale Farms, Inc., et al., No. 65, September Term 2012. Reported. Argued April 5, 2013. Opinion by Harrell, J., filed June 24, 2013.

Issue:

Did a community group have standing to sue, as ‘interested persons’ under the Estates & Trusts Article, to enforce the provisions of an agricultural preservation easement purchased by the state over farm land?

Holding:

No; affirmed. The purchase of an agricultural preservation easement does not create a charitable trust enforceable by ‘interested persons.’

Counsel:

Michael R. McCann for petitioners; Thomas F. Filbert and John B. Gontrum for respondents.

RecordFax #13-0624-21, 37 pages.