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Maryland Politics
Posted at 08:28 PM ET, 12/14/2011

Montgomery farmer settles with county on organic farm

Editor’s Note: This post has been updated. Earlier versions of this blog item incorrectly said farmer Nick Maravell had settled with the local school board. He settled with Montgomery officials.

An organic farmer in Potomac who started an international campaign to save his farm from Montgomery officials and the local school board scored a temporary victory on Wednesday, reaching a settlement with county officials to keep it until next August.

Nick Maravell was scheduled to go to Montgomery County Circuit Court on Thursday to seek a stay on school system-owned land he has tended for 31 years. His lease was set to expire on Jan. 1, and school officials notified him in March that they planned to lease the land to the county for soccer fields.

The court hearing was seen as a last-ditch effort for Maravell to save the farm before his lease was up. He had appealed to the state school board, a separate case that is still pending.

In the local case, Maravell and his wife, Victoria Cowles, alleged that the school board violated open-meetings laws and state education laws, when making the decision, which outraged many local community activists and neighbors. A series of petitions to protect the farm has gathered 50,000 signatures, including thousands from Montgomery and some from as far as Germany.

But Maravell said Wednesday that after weeks of negotiations, he and county officials have reached a preliminary settlement. As part of the agreement, he will drop the case against the county in exchange for an extension on his lease until Aug. 15. He added that the county could further extend the lease until the end of next December.

School board member Patricia O’Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase) said Wednesday the attorneys were still working out the details. She said she was relieved, because she had never been subpoenaed in her 13 years as board member.

“I think everyone was on pins and needles,” she said.

In the state case, Maravell has asked the state board to decide whether public land can be used for public-private partnerships, such as maintaining soccer fields. If the board were to rule in his favor, the county would not be able to use the land for soccerfields.

“There was never any public airing of what would be a good change of use for this land,” Maravell said before the preliminary settlement. He proposed that the land be used as an educational farm to give students the chance to visit and learn about how food is grown.

The dispute shows how education opportunity and proper land use can come into conflict in Montgomery, where open space is scarce and school enrollments are high. Soccer fields are in high demand; 14,000 young suburbanites don knee pads and join youth soccer leagues. School officials have said that athletic fields are in line with their mission.

Historically, every three or five years the school board would make the land available for competitive bids, Maravell said. But last March as he was preparing to renew his application for the land, school officials informed him they had decided to lease it to the county.

County spokesman Patrick Lacefield could not be reached for comment on Wednesday. But the settlement would most likely please county officials, who have been dealing with the negative publicity caused by Maravell and his supporters.

For instance, Maravell’s supporters flocked to county meetings over the last few months to ask pointed questions about the farm at county officials. They rallied in Rockville last month and marched up to the second-floor office of County Executive Isiah Leggett (D). Before cameras and reporters, they handed a petition with 23,000 signatures to Joy Nurmi, one of Leggett’s top aides. They also testified at a school board meeting earlier this month.

Leggett has said he would give Maravell other land to farm — a request the farmer has rebuffed.

By and  |  08:28 PM ET, 12/14/2011

 
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