The Washington Post

Potomac farmer wins a round in court

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Nick Maravell’s landlord, the Montgomery County Board of Education, canceled his lease last year. Rather, the lease had expired, and the board entered into a new lease with the county government. This version has been corrected.

Nick Maravell working at his farm on March 11, 2011 in Potomac,MD. Maravell is an organic farmer who has been leasing land from the Montgomery County School Board for 30 years to grow corn, soy beans and other crops. (JUANA ARIAS/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

For 30 years, Nick Maravell grew row after row of soybeans and corn on a pastoral patch of land in Potomac. Then last year, his landlord, the Montgomery County Board of Education, decided instead to lease the land to the county for soccer fields.

It seemed like the farm’s days were over.

But after a county Circuit Court judge put a hold on the school board’s decision Tuesday, Maravell can stay on the farm — at least for now. That means he hopes to harvest his corn and soybeans this fall. The county, meanwhile, which had wanted to enter the property this week to begin testing the soil, will have to wait.

“We’re pleased with the decision of the court,” Maravell said.

With the clock winding down, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) on Sunday wrote a letter to Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and Shirley Brandman, the school board’s president, encouraging the pair to allow Maravell to keep his farm.

“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.

O’Malley sent the letter after an hour-long meeting last week with Maravell, his 24-year-old daughter, Sophia Maravell, and several of her colleagues, who told 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,” Sophia Maravell said. “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 three decades. The Brickyard Education Farm has already played host to some 400 schoolchildren 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 plot of land: She and her father want to turn 10 acres into a farmer-training program “to train the next generation of sustainable farmers,” she said. 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 this year.

This vision, however, can be realized only if the school board reverses its decision to lease the land to the county.

That decision outraged neighbors and environmentalists who accused the school board of cutting a backroom deal that didn’t include any community input on the land’s use. The Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board said last year that the board violated provisions of the Open Meetings Act.

Earlier this year, Maravell sued the county and school board, claiming that the lease the school board signed with the county was invalid. And on Tuesday, Judge Robert A. Greenberg put the lease on hold.

But Greenberg declined to say definitively whether Maravell 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.

Meantime, the Maravells and others hope the governor’s endorsement will help their case.

“We’re hoping that it will serve as a catalyst to urge the board of education to step back and reconsider what they’ve done and use the power that we know they have to reset the whole process,” said Keith Williams, the president of the Brickyard Coalition, a organization of civic groups and citizens opposed to the soccer fields.

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires he ingest more calories than a draft horse.



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