Organic farmer Nick Maravell and his family have held their farm in Potomac on lease for 31 years and survived multiple rounds of rival bidding along the way.
But before this year is out, a pair of legal cases overseen by the Maryland State Department of Education and the Montgomery County Government Circuit Court will decide the future of the 20-acre property that houses Nick’s Organic Farm on Brickyard Road, and whether the family can farm the land for another season or if the land will be converted into soccer fields.
“We’re in a legal cloud now,” Maravell said.
In August, Maravell and 31 other claimants were approved by the Maryland Department of Education to appeal the Montgomery County Board of Education's lease of the Brickyard Road tract of land to Montgomery County.
The Maryland Department of Education stated in its Aug. 30 decision that the 32 appeal arguments consist of claims that the Montgomery County BOE violated its own policies and procedures, among other issues, which makes the case appropriate for state review.
According to Bill Reinhard, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Education, the state board will decide if the Montgomery County BOE acted appropriately in transferring ownership of the lease in March 2011 to Montgomery County. Reinhard said that although a hearing date has not been set, it could take place at the state board’s Oct. 25 session.
Meanwhile, the Montgomery County Government Circuit Court is due to rule on whether the Montgomery County BOE violated the Open Meetings Act when it made the lease transfer.
The sunshine law requires local governments and school boards to make meetings open to the public. The Maryland Open Meetings Law Compliance Board stated earlier this year that Montgomery County residents had not been sufficiently clued in to the proceedings.
Maravell had filed suit in court in July stating that the sunshine law had been violated, and that the court should void the county’s claim on the land as a result. A court verdict could come in November.
“It’s difficult to predict what the court will do,” Maravell said. “But I think we have a very strong case in the circuit court. I think there was no question that the Open Meetings Act was violated.”
Maravell had leased the Brickyard land for Nick’s Organic Farm from the Montgomery County BOE until March 2011, when the BOE voted to turn the lease over to the county. The county subsequently announced that it would develop the site into soccer fields.
“This is not a property that Montgomery County Public Schools needs for a middle school at this time,” said Lesli Maxwell, spokeswoman for Montgomery County Public Schools. “The County Executive asked MCPS to lease the property to Montgomery County so that they could pursue soccer fields. We did that.”
The next step for the county is to put together a request for proposal for the site that should be completed within the next month, according to Montgomery County’s director of public information, Patrick Lacefield.
“Soccer associations are very interested,” said James Stiles, assistant chief of the Montgomery County Division of Building Design and Construction. “They’ve told us that there just aren’t enough fields to play on in the county.”
The school board retains the right to rescind the lease, however, if the land is needed for school purposes.
Maravell says he has been hoping to hold school programs on agriculture and earth science on the premises.
When the Maryland Department of Education sees the case, Maravell and 31 other county residents who support the farm will argue that if the county develops the land into soccer fields, the property would no longer suit “school purposes.” The county’s use of it would thus be unlawful.
“It is recreational use but not educational use,” Maravell said. “The land will go to private soccer leagues, not public school children.”
While the two separate legal cases are playing out Maravell faces yet another challenge: Montgomery County decided that in light of the legal questions, it does not have the authority to renew Maravell’s lease on the land. His current lease is scheduled to expire at the end of this year.
To Maravell, this latter problem is just further proof that the Montgomery County BOE never should have leased the land to the county in the first place. He remains hopeful that the legalities will be resolved in the next three months and that the family farm will remain on the Brickyard Road tract of land.
“We’ve made every effort to hold onto the farm over the last 30 years,” Maravell said. “Every three to five years we’ve had to bid and we’ve been a successful bidder. We hope to continue to do that, and to make the farm and educational resource for Montgomery County.”