[VIDEO] Nick's Organic Farm, Brickyard Educational Farm Given Reprieve
A circuit court judge on Tuesday granted the farm a stay, halting soccer field development for the time being.
The sight of children running around fields picking vegetables, feeding chickens and painting garden signs -- the scene at Brickyard Road in Potomac just a few days ago -- may be here to stay.
The children are visiting the Brickyard Educational Farm, part of the property currently housing a 30-year-old organic farm in the heart of Potomac. The farm faces eviction by Montgomery County and Montgomery County Public Schools so the carefully tended plots can be developed into MSI soccer fields, but a Circuit Court judge Tuesday nullified a lease agreement between Montgomery County and Montgomery County Public Schools, potentially allowing the educational farm to stay on the land indefinitely. The county and school board are in dispute with citizen groups and residents over use of the land, the legality of the county’s decision to develop the soccer fields and the transparency of its actions. Tuesday’s decision came hours after Gov. Martin O'Malley issued a statement on the controversy in favor of the organic farm.
Dea Keen and Sophia Maravell, founders of Brickyard Educational Farm, and interns Ben Joseph and Anna Johnson, sat down one recent afternoon after a student visit to the farm to recap the day, their educational strategies and the logistics of the program. It was started as a way to contribute to the county’s education and keep the farm alive.
The four congratulated each other on a successful visit by a Rockville City group despite it being one of the hottest days of the year, which forced a shorter visit, with more water breaks.
“It’s getting smoother and smoother each time,” said Johnson, a graduate of Colorado College with a degree in environmental education.
For decades, Nick Maravell of Nick’s Organic Farm leased the land, designated as the Brickyard Middle School site, from Montgomery County Public Schools. With the knowledge that the land may be recalled by MCPS for educational purposes, such as the construction of a Brickyard Middle School, at any point, Maravell developed what has become a nationally recognized farm, known for its strict organic practices and rare seed-saving mission.
In March of 2011, Potomac was confronted with the knowledge that the county had plans to contract with a soccer organization to develop ball fields. As expected by most of the community, one organization, the nonprofit Montgomery Soccer, Inc. submitted a proposal during the county’s official call to potential developers in January. MSI was chosen as the project developer in March.
However, Sophia Maravell, Dea Keen and Sara Shor, an organizer with Save Nick’s Organic Farm, also submitted plans, offering the creation of the agricultural education program, which they launched in February.
“I think it’s been really successful. We’ve had overwhelming really positive verbal and written feedback,” Maravell said. “It seems like [the children] have a really great time when they leave. I think it’s rare that they get to be let loose outside in this very new, stimulating environment.”
Dozens of private school groups, public and private youth camps and daycare centers have visited the farm's educational center, though Maravell says groups from Montgomery County-sponsored programs have been notably absent.
“I think it’s such a politicized issue they just don’t want to get involved,” she said.
Students from Potomac’s Bullis School visited the farm in the beginning of March as part of a series of lessons geared toward personal health. The Extended Day Lower School, made up of Bullis students between third and fifth grade, had a morning of hands-on learning about the food supply chain and how food makes its way to the dinner plate, according to Keri Taylor, coordinator of the school's extended day program.
"Sophia Maravell and her team at Nick's Organic Farm reinforced our lessons by providing the expertise and knowledge to make our program a success," Taylor told Patch in March.
Maravell’s mission is more personal than environmental youth education.
In March 2011, after her father, Nick Maravell, learned that his lease of the land would not be renewed and that the school board intended to lease the land to Montgomery County for soccer fields, Sophia made it her duty to protect her childhood playground.
“I grew up on the farm, same house my whole life. Some of my earliest memories are playing hide-and-go-seek in the cover crop in the field,” Maravell said. “My dad told me in a phone call [that he had lost the lease.] I was studying sustainable agriculture in Massachusetts at the time. It as almost like informing me that a family member had become very deathly ill.”
The Open Government Controversy
The county’s plan was an unwelcome shock to the community as well. It is widely alleged by citizens groups including the West Montgomery County Citizens Association, the Brickyard Coalition and others that the plan resulted from backroom deals. County Executive Isiah Leggett was accused by citizens groups of false practices and political motives but he has firmly denied the allegations.
Montgomery County has been found in violation of open government mandates multiple times throughout the controversy. County discussion of plans to put soccer fields at the Brickyard site has been reported as far back as 2009, with closed meeting discussions continuing through 2010, according to Gazette reports.
Email messages from February 2011 between county officials and Montgomery County Public Schools indicate that the school board was aware that the Potomac community would heavily oppose a decision to lease the land to the county for soccer fields but that both parties went along with the lease agreement anyway. The emails also urge the county to begin the public notification process as quickly as possible.
A Feb. 3, 2011 message from Cynthia Brenneman, director of the county's real estate office in the Department of General Services, to DGS Director David Dise states that BOE was hesitant to sign a lease without having notified the public. In an email dated two weeks later, on Feb. 14, 2011, Brenneman reiterated the BOE's issue with public process to Dise.
"They [the school board] really do have a concern that we haven't notified the community yet. I think they believe the outcry will be so overwhelming that we won't proceed," Brenneman wrote.
The first record of public notice of the county's intentions for the land came a month later, when the BOE informed Maravell that his lease to farm the land would not be renewed. At the March 8, 2011 BOE meeting the board heard comments from the public and ultimately decided to sign a lease with the county.
The first public hearing on the Brickyard soccer field project was held in April of 2011.
The Maryland Open Meetings Law Compliance Board stated in July of 2011 that Montgomery County residents were not made sufficiently aware of the proceedings. In July of this year, three citizens' groups won a lawsuit alleging Montgomery County failed to turn over documents the residents sought in a campaign to keep the organic farm from being turned into soccer fields.
The Montgomery County Circuit Court sided with the West Montgomery County Citizens' Association, the Civic Association of River Falls and the Brickyard Coalition in ordering Leggett to repeat a search for public documents related to the county’s planning for the soccer field project.
Continuing Litigation Complicates Development
A circuit court hearing is scheduled to continue this week to make sure the search for the county documents and official correspondence pertaining to Brickyard is moving along appropriately, although Curt Uhre of the Brickyard Coalition says the county has yet to hand over any documents.
“All records were to be provided by Aug. 3,” Uhre said.
A second circuit court hearing granted Maravell a stay of execution on the land while appealing an earlier State Board of Education decision. The stay effectively returns all parties – the farm, the county and the school board – to status quo. It temporarily nullifies the lease between the school board and the county while appeals play out.
"It effectively means that the county does not have a lease until the stay is lifted," said Maravell's attorney, Jim Parsons of Rockville.
Sara Shor, an organizer with Save Nick's Organic Farm, said the Maravell family and their supporters were ecstatic with the decision.
"We're happy to have gotten exactly what we asked for, and we feel that this is a huge victory," Shor said. "We hope the county government and the board of education use their leadership to do what the citizens have said, what 30 organizations have signed on to and what the governor has now endorsed."
The county and MCPS, meanwhile, are re-evaluating plans in light of the decision.
Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett had no comment as of Tuesday afternoon, according to county spokesperson Donna Bigler, and whether the county will continue with its planning studies required to send the project to the planning board is also unclear.
"We probably need to work it out with the school board," Bigler said.
Dana Tofig, spokesperson for Montgomery County Public Schools, said the board had no official reaction.
"We're not going comment on anything else to this point," Tofig said. "We need to figure out what [the decision] means to us."
He said the school board's priority was maintaining flexibility for building a school on the site.
Before Tuesday’s decision, the county had indicated it wasn’t sure if it could move forward with the project.
“If [Tuesday’s] court case is thrown out or ends, then we can start moving forward, then the county, with MSI, will seek mandatory referral approval for the ball fields,” said county spokesperson Donna Bigler. “A variety of things could happen there. It kind of depends on what happens in that court case – if the county will be able to move forward.”
Even with full custody of the land come Thursday, the county was not ready to fully move forward with the project, Bigler said earlier. A license extension granted Nick Maravell freedom to continue farming the land through Wednesday, meaning county officials could not enter the property to conduct needed assessments.
“We have respected the terms of the license and don’t plan to go in until [Aug.] 16,” Bigler said earlier. The county had plans to go into the property Thursday for soil and groundwater testing, preliminary studies needed for planning board approval, Bigler said.
Nothing has yet been submitted to the county planning board, which must assess a development project before it begins, according to Callum Murray, supervisor of planning for the region. In addition to soil and groundwater testing, the county must also submit forest conservation plans; a written description of the project, including phases and hours of operation; a possible sewer category change application; traffic statements; storm water management plans; pedestrian and vehicular safety plans; landscaping and lighting plans; and a statement of compliance with noise regulations.
“Although they have to apply to the planning board, they don't have to conform to the planning board's recommendations,” Murray said, adding that noncompliance with board suggestions would be irregular. “I've been here 24 years and there's only two agencies who have never listened to the advice of the planning board. It’s not good public relations."
The Brickyard planning decisions will be important and controversial files for the board to go over, Murray said.
“Unfortunately, a lot of what's been going on with Brickyard was done in secret," he said.
As everything plays out, Sophia Maravell says she will continue with her educational farm as long as possible.
“We don’t know who will be in control of the land yet,” she said. “We don’t know if MSI is going to come in. It all depends on a lot of different things right now.”
Editor's note: This story was updated Aug. 15 to reflect recent developments.