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Joppa Hill Farm board, town at stalemate on fixing facility to meet code

The Town Council on Wednesday, Jan. 23, supported the town manager’s recommendation to terminate the lease of the Educational Farm at Joppa Hill, which could result in its eviction from the property.

The farm’s board of directors refused to sign a written version of an agreement made at a meeting the previous week with the town to repair its barn.

The farm had until Friday, Jan. 18, to sign the agreement, but unanimously agreed Sunday, Jan. 20, not to sign it.

The farm had been given until July 1 to make all necessary repairs on the structure, which was found by the town’s insurer to be unsafe, or see it demolished.

The town, which has leased the 35-acre parcel of land to the farm since 2001, had made repeated requests to the farm directors since the fall of 2010 to bring the 15,000-square-foot barn up to code.

“I’m disappointed, I’m deflated about what I’m reporting to the council,” said Town Manager Jessie Levine.

Levine then presented councilors with several options.

Levine said the town could opt to do nothing, and let the farm manage the barn’s repairs; ask taxpayers to allow the town to take the lead on the repairs; begin another round of negotiations with the farm; or issue a notice of breach of the farm’s lease, terminate it and bring forward eviction proceedings.

Levine said after a two-hour meeting on Jan. 14 she was under the impression that both sides had come to an agreement about the barn repairs.

“They accused us of not acting in good faith, and I’m baffled,” Levine said, adding that the town repeatedly attempted to work with the farm, but the repairs were never made.

“I think this is an exceedingly painful position to be in,” Levine said, but said the farm was in denial of the magnitude of the barn’s condition.

“They haven’t given us much choice,” she said.

Council Chairman Bill Dermody, who attended the Jan. 14 meeting with council members Ken Peterson and Mac McMahon, said he also thought an agreement had been reached between the two parties.

“I cannot say how disappointed I am,” Peterson said. “This just fell on us like a ton of bricks.”

While Councilor Bill Jean said he believed the farm to be an asset to the community, safety concerns couldn’t be ignored.

In a letter to the town’s counsel, William Brennan, attorney for the farm, explained the board’s position.

“The vast majority of the demands set forth by the Town Council in the agreement were virtually impossible for this nonprofit organization to meet,” the letter read. “It was the impression of all of the voting board members that the terms set forth by the council were designed to result in the Educational Farm’s failure to fulfill the terms of the agreement.”

The letter also stated the town was unable to specify which building codes would apply to the barn, which Levine said was untrue.

“It’s not that we couldn’t tell them,” Levine said. “We told them they needed to have conversations with the code officer, and we gave them two additional weeks to have those conversations.”

“We’ve had so many opportunities to fix this over the years,” Levine said. “It really didn’t have to come to this.”

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