A fixture in Howard County for 18 years, the Living Farm Heritage Museum has been given until May 31, 2024 to vacate West Friendship Park and remove its artifacts. (Photo: Howard County Antique Farm Machinery Club)

In response to an inquiry from The Business Monthly, Howard County’s Department of Recreation and Parks director said an unapproved road, code problems and a lack of permits were among the issues that preceded his department’s order for the organization that operates Howard County Living Farm Heritage Museum to vacate West Friendship Park.

Nick Mooneyhan, who became the department’s director on July 31, provided a document to The Business Monthly on Oct. 17, summarizing issues that preceded the decision, some of which date back to 2006.

That document said contributors to the decision included construction activities affecting wetland banks; lack of progress on improvements to the main Exhibit Hall; Exhibit Hall construction that was not in compliance with codes and standards; buildings that lacked Use and Occupancy permits; construction of two sections of roadway without county approval; and operating a drive-through holiday light display at the park without necessary permits or a Certificate of Insurance.

Mooneyhan on Aug. 29 notified the Antique Farm Machinery Club, which has operated the museum for the last 18 years, of the decision to terminate the Club’s lease.

The county is allowing the club access to the park to remove properties and vacate buildings in phases through May 31, 2024.

Financial pinch

Addressing the complaints, John Frank, president of the Antique Farm Machinery Club, said the county and the Club began discussing the need for a new road to improve safety for entering and exiting vehicles in 2005.

He also maintained that the county provided staff who conducted GPS survey work to lay out the design, but failed to budget for its construction for nearly a decade, culminating in the Club building the road itself in November 2021.

Frank said that attempts to rectify the county’s building permit issues earlier this year were rebuffed by the county, but said the Club remains willing to work through whatever issues the county has if doing so will restore its lease.

“We’re holding out hope that something will still happen, but the way the county has squeezed our ability to generate revenue at this point, it would be questionable if we could finance operations if we were allowed to stay,” Frank said.

Dairy shrine question

The dispute over whether the museum should remain is between the county and the Antique Farm Machinery Club, but there’s another organization with a big stake in the outcome.

The Maryland Dairy Shrine invested $100,000 toward renovations of the park’s main exhibit hall in 2020 in the hopes of integrating its own museum into the Farm Museum after 16 years of searching for a home.

The Farm Museum contributed the same amount and also received $200,000 in state funds as part of a State Bond Bill Initiative for the project that same year.

Frank confirmed that the state’s money is still in escrow, but said money invested by the Dairy Shrine was already spent on rough-in work for bathrooms, framing for new walls, and repairing a concrete floor.

“We invested that money, but nothing ever moved forward,” said David Hill, president of the Shrine. “If Howard County does take over the museum’s spaces and the project, we’re hoping it might put us in a better position to continue negotiating with them to eventually locate our museum in the Exhibit Hall.”

No road map yet

Many of the 50 or so residents who turned out in support of the Farm Museum at the Oct. 18 Recreation and Parks Advisory Board meeting voiced similar concerns regarding what they deemed the county’s lack of transparency and communication with residents about why the decision was made to terminate the lease and what plans the county may or may not yet have for the property.

While no planning effort is underway for the park, the county’s 2022 Land Preservation, Parks and Recreation Plan update lays out some ideas for future uses. The Capital Improvement Plan section recommends master planning the park for heritage, natural resource, and outdoor adventure programming uses. Potential development noted in this section includes completion of the main Exhibit Building renovations, relocation of archery programs from elsewhere in the county, and renovation of a modern house on the property into county office space.

Howard County Councilman David Yungmann, who represents the county’s rural west, said he is working to keep both sides talking in hopes of salvaging a better outcome.

“(Residents) also need some assurance of what isn’t going to happen, and what’s being envisioned, but that’s a process,” he said.

Mooneyhan said his department has expressed an interest and willingness to discuss a contractual agreement in the future that could allow the Club to do some programming and potentially keep some displays at the park.

“There’s no plan to show anybody because we haven’t gotten to that point of the process yet,” he said.

Frank said the Club plans to continue its mission of outreach and education after vacating West Friendship Park, but faces a challenge in storing its thousands of artifacts, which include large items like tractors, threshing machines and a locomotive.

“There’s an economic impact in what’s happening to us, but we pursued our mission for 10 years before we had a physical facility,” he said. “At the very least we’ll go back to that.”