Upated: 6:15 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 14.
With the clocking ticking on Nick Maravell, whose 31 years of farming on Montgomery County Board of Education land was officially supposed to end on Wednesday, his supporters and lawyers made last-ditch efforts to keep Nick’s Organic Farm alive.
Chief among those advocates was Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley who wrote a letter to Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and Shirley Brandman, president of the county board of education, encouraging the pair to back away from a plan to evict Maravell in favor of developing the 20 acres into private soccer fields.
“I believe we are about to make a big mistake in destroying acres of a productive organic farmland and its soils which could be a priceless asset to the education, health, and well-being of generations of Montgomery students,” O’Malley wrote in the letter dated Aug. 12.
With or without O’Malley’s help, the last-minute push did the trick, at least temporarily: A Maryland circuit court judge agreed this afternoon to stay the school board’s decision to lease the land to Montgomery County for development into soccer fields. County officials had hoped to enter the property on Thursday to start digging holes and testing the soil.
“Under the judge’s decision,” said lawyer Jim Parsons, who represents Maravell, his wife and Nick’s Organic Farm, “the county has no right to force him off the land, because the county’s rights to the land have been put on hold.”
It’s unclear how much influence the governor’s letter may have had, if any, but O’Malley’s words were strong.
“I understand that these issues are the subject of litigation, and it is not my intent to express any view on the legal merits of the case. However, on policy grounds, there are significant and compelling reasons to preserve this farm for the benefit of the children of Montgomery County,” the governor wrote.
O’Malley sent the letter after an Aug. 6 meeting with Maravell, his daughter, Sophia Maravell, 24, and several of her colleagues, who impressed upon the governor that they had a bold vision for the future of Nick’s Organic Farm and its offshoot, the Brickyard Educational Farm.
“We wanted to tell him about this amazing resource that might be lost,” Maravell said today. “We told him about this amazing vision for the land, and I think we spoke to his heart directly. I think he understood the potential for this 20-acre plot.”
After graduating from the Farm School in Athol, Mass., Sophia Maravell started the Brickyard Educational Farm in January on some of the land that her father has leased from the school board in Potomac for more than three decades. The Brickyard Education Farm has already played host to some 400 school kids who, according to Sophia Maravell, “get a taste of what it might be like to run a farm for a day.”
But the daughter has grander visions for this Brickyard plot of land (named after a middle school that the county never built on the site): She and her father want to turn 10 acres into a farmer-training program (“to train the next generation of sustainable farmers,” Sophia Maravell noted). Another seven acres, she said, would be devoted to an heirloom seed-saving program to “preserve genetic biodiversity,” while the final three acres would be used for an expansion of the farm-to-school program that was launched earlier this year.
This vision, however, can only be realized if the Montgomery County Board of Education reverses its decision to lease the land to the county for the youth soccer program. The 2011 decision outraged neighbors and environmentalists who accused the school board of cutting a back room deal that didn’t include any community input on the land’s use. (The Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board did rule last year that the board violated provisions of the Open Meetings Act.)
The Brickyard Coalition, a organization of civic groups and citizens opposed to the soccer fields, was part of a group that filed a petition for judicial review in Montgomery County Circuit Court, claiming the school board had, among other things, “violated its fiduciary obligation to hold the land for educational purposes,” said Keith Williams, a Brickyard Coalition member and the president of the Civic Association of River Falls.
What that means, says Maravell’s attorney Parsons, is that state law requires the property be used “for the benefit of the school or school system.” “The lease of the school property to the county to be used by a private soccer club does not result in a benefit to the school system,” Parsons said.
Maravell and the coalition were forced to take their case to court after the Maryland Board of Education in July upheld the county school board’s decision to allow the land to be developed into soccer fields. As part of the case, the plaintiffs asked judge Greenberg to stay the board’s plan to lease the property to the county, until a full judicial review is complete.
“I’m concerned that permitting the lease to proceed with the possibility that it would be voided is a [ruling] that’s not governed by prudence,” Greenberg said at the hearing. “It would be, in my opinion, impossible to unscramble that egg.”
But Greenberg declined to say whether Maravell definitively has the right to stay on the land. The school board now has the option to go to tenant court and try to evict him, but that could take weeks. School spokesman Dana Tofig declined to say whether the board would try to evict Maravell, and Leggett declined to comment on the ruling.
Tofig, however, did reiterate the point that the school board wants the “land available for a school, should we need it...That remains what is important.” He added that¡ Montgomery County has no immediate plans for a school on the Brickyard site.
In an interview, Maravell said he intends to keep farming on the property in the near future. He said he wants to harvest his already planted corn and soybeans, which should be ready this fall.
Leggett, for one, isn’t changing his mind on the future of the site, no matter what the governor thinks. The county supports organic farming, and it offered Maravell other county farmland about two years ago, Leggett said. Maravell refused it because the soil was better on the current property.
“I just think [O’Malley] has received some misinformation about it,” Leggett said. “The letter does not take into consideration what has happened in the last two years.”