On a recent sunny morning at the Maple View Agriculture Center, a group of YMCA campers a summer shy of kindergarten boards a hay-laden trailer tugged by a green and yellow tractor.
“I’m betting before this ride is over, someone is going to hold their nose,” tour guide Paul Sexton Jr. warns, alluding to the cows ahead. “But Farmer Bob, the guy who owns this, says all those smells are the smell of money.”
To earn it, for the last five decades farmer Bob Nutter, 81, has guided Maple View from an old-fashioned farm to a multibusiness venture.
He bought 477 acres in the Bingham Township off Dairyland Road in 1963 and began milking cows the day he arrived, Aug. 1. By 1996, he had amassed 700 acres, but he no longer could afford to send his milk elsewhere to be processed.
With little research but with hefty chutzpah, Nutter financed his milk-bottling venture by selling some of his farmland to a developer, who built homes on 10-acre lots.
Today, Maple View milk is sold in glass bottles across the Triangle.
The farmer followed a similar plan in 2000, when his daughter wanted to add an ice-cream store. Following a brief class on ice-cream store ownership at Penn State University, he sold more land, which was turned into another neighborhood of five-acre-lot homes on Green Rise Road.
Nutter has 400 acres left. And Maple View now has three Orange County stores with long lines even on cold days. The agriculture center has received praise similar to that garnered by Nutter’s ice cream and milk since it opened in April 2009, making Nutter a “town treasure” in the eyes of the Chapel Hill Historical Society and earning plaudits from locals who feel Maple View helped put them on the map and build community.
But some of Nutter’s neighbors whose home purchases helped finance Maple View’s endeavors say they aren’t getting the serene, pastoral life they thought they were buying.
“Instead of being isolated and not knowing what they are doing, we know and see so much more,” says Meredith Berry, who has lived a half mile behind the farm for three years. “It’s extended so far beyond the boundaries of what it originally began as.”
The neighbors supported the original project, and they say they remain committed to seeing Maple View be successfulbut within the rules.
They thought they had OK’d a space for field trips and adult education on agriculture. Instead, they say, they have been overwhelmed by loud outdoor music played for birthdays, weddings and fundraisers, and by trees cut down to provide a better view of the pond from the hayride, which creates highway noise.
“You can hear it so well, you can sing along,” says Nancy Oglesby, another concerned neighbor.
Oglesby says she can’t host friends outdoors to fish or bird-watch anymore, and sometimes she has to leave home to escape the noise, which penetrates her closed windows.
The neighbors relayed their concerns to the Orange County planning office, which issued a notice of violation for Maple View a few weeks ago, forcing Nutter to quit hosting parties until the Board of Adjustment hears the appeal in August.
“At a certain point in time, the county had to get involved,” says Mike Harvey, a county zoning administrator. “The applicant was continuing to engage in activities that we felt were inconsistent with the special use permit.”
Specifically, Harvey says renting the space for special events and hosting a yoga class there fall outside of the approved hands-on instructional farmland facility.
Maple View also could apply to modify the permit.
Harvey allowed two already scheduled events to go on as planned, so “individuals who had nothing to do with this were not harmed.”
Nutter acknowledges that he wasn’t aware he had to list every intended use of the building and that “we’re in the process of getting our act together and seeing what will be approved or disapproved so we can set it in concrete.”
Maple View has survived, even as other farms struggle, because of Nutter’s drive to adapt and his ability to add new money-making businesses. Now he wants to pass along those lessons.
Allison Nichols grew up on Anilorac (“Carolina” backward) Farm, down the road from Nutter, and worked in the ice-cream stores while in college. After graduating and becoming a teacher, she found a dearth of farm knowledge in her Merrick-Moore Elementary School classroom.
“They didn’t know a chicken laid an egg or a cow gave milk,” Nutter says. “So we went ahead and built this building.”
The building is a 6,000-square-foot agriculture center with four classrooms on dairy science, insects, plants and sustainable energy. It’s the only one in the state, and it has welcomed students from Alamance, Durham, Wake, Chatham, Orange, Person and Hoke counties, says Nichols, the center manager and part owner.
As the hayride winds down, the YMCA crew is shepherded to a small petting zoo of sorts, where Nutter feeds a llama an oatmeal cookie and ferrets a rabbit from its hiding place for the children to pet. He collects a warm egg from the henhouse and hands it off.
Moments like thisand the time a child saw a cow pee and called it “milk” before being quickly correctedare why he built the agriculture center, he says, but finding a way to pay for it has caused a rift with the neighbors.
“We did not move here to have a party center next door. We could have stayed in town (Carrboro) for that,” Berry says.
Nichols contends that the birthday parties fit with the educational intent. “The only difference is it’s a birthday party, so when the kids get ice cream, they sing ‘Happy Birthday,’” she says.
“We’re paying a lot of taxes, and we’ve got to generate money to pay them,” Nutter says, adding that the center isn’t meant to be profitable, only to fund itself. “The only way we can do that is to use the building.”
Exactly how remains at issue.
“I really feel like to make that much noise in a quiet neighborhood, and especially when it’s specifically not allowed, somehow county residents should be protected from that,” Oglesby says. “I just hope that can be done without it hurting the other party too much.”