March 16, 2010

Farmers see threat in plaza plan


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Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer: Danielle Walker Johnson and her husband Justin Walker with their horse Wessley at the Walker Stables at Johnson Farm in York on May, 19, 2008. The farm could be impacted by the Maine Turnpike Authority's toll booth relocation.

Tim Greenway

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Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer: Danielle Johnson Walker grooms Wessley after a long trail ride at the Walker Stables at Johnson Farm in York on May, 19, 2008. The farm could be impacted by the Maine Turnpike Authority's toll booth relocation.

Tim Greenway

Additional Photos Below

Staff Writer

YORK — Randy Small's farmland along Chase's Pond Road has been in the family for years. His father still owns horses and oxen that graze near the road, and his children fish in the pond near their backyard.

The nearby Johnson Farm, along North Village Road, was restored in recent years to a working farm, through the efforts of Danielle Johnson and her husband, Justin Walker, who operate a stable on nine acres.

The two farms also border the Maine Turnpike, which carries thousands of cars through the state each day.

With turnpike officials studying how to replace the outdated York toll plaza, both farm owners are concerned they could lose everything.

The turnpike authority is considering relocating the 39-year-old toll plaza to one of four locations in York, in addition to studying rebuilding at the current site.

The four new sites under consideration all have the potential to displace homes. Under one scenario, the Small's property would be affected. Under another, the Johnson farm would be affected.

The turnpike authority will reimburse property owners for the value of their property if homes are displaced, but both families say that re-establishing farms in southern Maine would be next to impossible.

''We could never replace what we have,'' Small said. ''Money cannot replace our lives. and that's why this touched such a chord.''

In late February, the turnpike authority announced the four sites under consideration for the new toll plaza, all in York and north of the current plaza. Since then, town residents and officials have come out strongly against the relocation. The authority slowed its selection process in response to public reaction and last week announced it would suspend consideration of the four sites for the next month. Engineers are now taking another look at the viability of rebuilding at the current location.

Turnpike officials have said the displacement of homes and property will be a major consideration in the selection process.

''All of that comes into consideration -- the protection of farmland, that all comes into consideration,'' said Dan Paradee, spokesman for the turnpike authority. ''There certainly is a value placed on farmland.''

The existing toll plaza is just north of the York interchange. It cannot accommodate an expansion or new technology, is located on a curve, and is slowly sinking because it was built on wetlands.

Most of the properties that would be affected by a relocation are single-family homes. The turnpike authority, Paradee said, has an excellent record of helping people relocate to comparable locations when land needs to be acquired.

But the Johnsons and Smalls -- who are fighting the relocation along with their neighbors -- say their land isn't for sale and can't be replaced.

''I'm not going to sell this -- they're going to have to take this,'' said Ted Johnson, Danielle's father. ''It's taken five generations to build this.''

For the past several years, Justin Walker and Danielle Johnson have worked to re-establish the Johnson Farm, including restoring the barn and building paddocks for the horses. They now operate a stable, offer riding lessons and also allow others to keep goats and ducks at their farm. In two years, the young couple has been able to build their business enough to hire part-time help.

''We're here, building something agricultural,'' Walker said.

Farmland has become increasingly scarce in York County, with the total number of acres shrinking by 31 percent between 1982 and 2002, according to Census figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Smalls' property has been farmland since the 1700s. It was cut in half when the turnpike was constructed.

''We're very private people and we don't enjoy fighting the MTA,'' Small said. ''But when you're talking about taking people's lives, that they can't ever replace, that's a pretty sensitive situation.''

Staff Writer Anne Gleason can be contacted at 282-8229 or at:

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Additional Photos

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Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer: Justin Walker repairs a fence for the run in paddock at the Walker Stables at Johnson Farm in York on May, 19, 2008. The farm could be impacted by the Maine Turnpike Authority's toll booth relocation.

Tim Greenway


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