TANYARD — A Caroline County farmer met with an assistant Maryland attorney general Thursday to discuss the state’s seizure of nearly 20 acres on which he was growing produce.
Tim Jester, who owns TJ’s Produce on state Route 331 near the Dover Bridge, said the state in May claimed the land along the Choptank River for wetlands mitigation purposes related to the state Route 328 bridge replacement project going on about seven miles north of the site, between Denton and Easton.
“They’re digging out (the acquired land) to let a turtle or muskrat up there in Denton to swim down here and have a home,” Jester said. “That’s what it amounts to.”
The land acquisition was not related to the proposed Dover Bridge replacement, Jester said.
Jester said he and his attorney are meeting with an assistant attorney general today, along with another local farmer and perhaps local officials, though they had not been confirmed as of Tuesday.
“I don’t know what will happen Thursday; they could be sympathetic or anti-farmer,” Jester said.
A payment to Jester from the state of $90,000, less than $5,000 per acre, has been filed with the Caroline County Clerk of the Circuit Court, but he refuses to accept it.
“The state paid architects and the engineer (for the Route 328 bridge project) millions, but not the farmer who owned the property,” Jester said. “I almost smell a bias there.
“I think (the state is) just abusing us, and it needs to be in the public eye,” Jester added.
Jester said he has an independent appraiser working on an assessment of the land’s value. He said three to four of the acres that now belong to the state are zoned for commercial use, and run along Route 331.
“Commercial property on road front like that is worth a lot of money,” Jester said.
The remaining acres are zoned for agricultural use. Jester said he spends at least $5,000 per acre every year to plant, spray and water the crops he grew.
Kellie Boulware, a spokesman for the State Highway Administration, said Wednesday the department is still in litigation with Jester over the appraisal, and could not share all information.
As is standard procedure with a quick take condemnation, the local property tax and assessment appeal board will review the compensation offered and hear any concerns on either side, Boulware said. This particular case should be heard in August or September.
Jester said he is aware of the review, and will be ready.
“That’s why I’m getting the appraisal,” Jester said.
Jester said he was first visited by the chief of the Office of Real Estate in 2008, who asked if Jester would be interested in selling the field behind his house — about five acres — for $600,000 to $650,000 per acre.
“I agree that’s a lot,” Jester said. “She said she needed my word before she left, if they didn’t find anything in an archaeological dig, would I sell for that figure, and I said yes, I would.”
Jester said he would have had to cut back on the wholesale operation of his business, but it would have been manageable.
Over the next several years, Jester said he had no more contact with state employees, though sometimes architects or members of the Army Corps of Engineers surveyed the land.
Jester said the next time he heard from the state was this past March, when a new offer came in: About $3,500 per acre, and the state wanted 20 acres, not five.
“I said that’s not what I was offered years ago, so I’m not going to accept it,” Jester said.
Two months later, in May, as Jester was returning from harvesting wholesale cucumbers and squash, he received a certified letter from the state, informing him the 20 acres had been seized as a quick take condemnation, and Jester was to stay off the property.
Jester said he got an attorney, who called the attorney general’s office, and was told Jester had to stay off the property or he would be arrested.
After a week, Jester figured the state could seize the land but not his crops, so he started watering them again. However, the dry conditions had already damaged the crops.
In a binder, Jester has stored all correspondence relating to the land acquisition, including a map, dated July 16, 2008, showing the five-acre parcel that was initially discussed, and the business card of the chief of the Office of Real Estate, who has since retired, as well as those of the three other state employees who were also present at the first meeting in 2008.
He does not have the initial offer in writing, but Jester insists he was offered much more than he received.
“You don’t forget an offer like that,” Jester said.
Jester said state employees and contractors working on the land have been as cooperative as possible, but they have erected fencing, in line with Environmental Protection Agency regulations, that has made it impossible to do any work on the two acres he still owns. Blight is already attacking the rows of tomatoes and watermelons, since chemical-spraying equipment cannot fit between the EPA fencing lining access roads. He was not left enough land even to park all of his farming equipment.
The EPA fencing also cut off access to a particular road that cut through the land, forcing Jester and his employees to drive farming equipment on busy Route 331 at times.
Jester called the blow to his business devastating. He said his wholesale business is done; since the land was seized in the middle of the season, he only had about a third of his plantings in the ground. The rest never made it beyond the greenhouse.
“That was a $20,000 loss right there,” Jester said. “I had to call my wholesale customers and tell them I don’t have a crop this year.”
While his building business is holding its own, his retail produce business is limping along, Jester said, partly due to the drought conditions.
“The financial strain has been unbelievable,” Jester said.
Jester said he has been told not to expect to own the property again. He said he would at least like a payment more in line with what the land is worth.
“It’s like stealing your wallet and giving you a penny and saying that’s enough for the $10,000 that was in it,” Jester said. “I pay a lot in taxes to the state every year, more than they gave me for that property.”
Del. Addie Eckardt, R-37B-Dorchester, said Tuesday she is trying to collect more information from the state on the timeline of events before forming an opinion, but after visiting the property and speaking with Jester, she has a lot of questions.
“I thought this was not becoming to government, let’s put it that way,” Eckardt said. “I was just floored when I went out there.”
Eckardt said she has asked verbally for records of negotiations with Jester the state claims took place over a two-year period, with no response, and has now written a letter to the Office of Real Estate.
Among her concerns are why the state seized the land in the middle of a growing season and why local delegates and elected officials were not made aware of the move.
“It’s also a question of individual constitutional rights,” Eckardt said.
Eckardt said she recommended in the letter that a process be set up for any future situations like this one, perhaps requiring public hearings.
“You can’t just gut somebody’s business like that,” Eckardt said. “It’s heart-breaking to see a family in that situation; that’s why I need more information to know what to think about it.”
State Sen. Richard Colburn, R-37-Mid-Shore, said in an email Tuesday the matter is a judicial one, and the general counsel for the Maryland General Assembly has advised all legislators and their staffs not to provide legal advice or intervention in any such matter. Jester has a letter from Colburn, dated April 3 of this year, explaining that.
Colburn said Jester’s attorney could reach out to Colburn for assistance, but to date, Colburn has not heard from Jester’s attorney.
Caroline County Commission President Larry Porter said Tuesday he does not understand how the state could take Jester’s land.
“It’s pretty complicated, and I don’t understand everything,” Jester said. “But it appears to be a tremendous over-reach by the state.”
Porter said he intends to raise the issue at the commissioners’ next meeting, at 7 p.m. July 24, but he hopes something can be worked out that is fair to both Jester and the state.
“I don’t know what we can do at the county level, but I intend to do whatever I can to make sure he’s treated fairly,” Porter said.