Ross Valley, 'prettiest farm in Maryland,' is up for sale The asking price is $5.9 million

September 28, 1992|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

FOR SALE: Horse farm. 3 houses, 237 acres. Convenient to I-83. 8 miles of white fence just painted. Owner moving to town. Must see. Under $6 million.

Eleanor R. Sparenberg says there's no truth to gossip that rap star Hammer and actor Sylvester Stallone have expressed interest in buying her spectacular horse farm just south of Hereford.

"Nor, to my knowledge, do they know it exists," she said.

". . . but we'd love to have them come and see it," added her real estate agent, Timothy M. Rodgers, of Hill & Co.

"It" is Ross Valley Farm, an emerald-green jewel strung with rolling white fences and studded with restored stone outbuildings. It has been catching the eyes of motorists on I-83 and York Road since Mrs. Sparenberg bought it for $775,000 in 1982 and went to work on it.

She transformed the overgrown dairy farm into an agricultural showplace, to the relief and delight of neighbors who fear nothing more than the urban sprawl creeping north along York Road from Hunt Valley.

L Now it's for sale again, and that has the community on edge.

"There is a bit of concern in the community," said Lee Bishop, secretary of the Hereford Community Association. "What Mrs. Sparenberg did there was great. . . . She is a lady of high ideals, and what happens after her is a matter of concern."

Mrs. Sparenberg said she has no desire to sell to developers.

"I just want to sell it as a horse farm," she said. "I think it's the prettiest farm in Maryland, and it would be a shame to see just a bunch of houses on this property."

Ross Valley is reputed to be one of Maryland's best-equipped working horse farms. Several horses bred there have run in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, including Land Rush, who finished seventh in the 1990 Derby and sixth in the Preakness, and Houston, who ran eighth in the 1989 Derby and sixth in the Preakness.

But in a recent interview at her 5-year-old hilltop house overlooking the farm, Mrs. Sparenberg said she'd like to move back to Columbia.

"The farm is too isolated for me. I want to go back to a neighborhood," she said. "I lived for 20 years in Columbia. My children grew up there and they still live there. And the majority of my best friends still live there."

Asked whether it will be difficult to leave, Mrs. Sparenberg acknowledged "there is an attachment to it because I think it turned out to be a beautiful farm."

But when all is said and done, she said, "things don't make you happy."

It's also true that the horse breeding industry is in a deep recession. Mrs. Sparenberg said she currently has only 18 horses at Ross Valley. When the place is sold, she intends to remain in the business but board her stock elsewhere. Which leaves the future of the property in doubt.

"Obviously we'd like to see it stay in its current use, which is rather attractive. That would be our position at this time," said Jeffrey Long, community planner for the district.

Mr. Bishop is more direct. He said home construction on Ross Valley Farm "would be devastating."

Most of the property is too wet for development. Plans in 1978 to build up to 158 homes on the land collapsed after speculators who owned the place found much of it unsuitable for septic systems.

After they sold to Mrs. Sparenberg in 1982, it was all rezoned RC2, the county's most restrictive agricultural designation.

The farm's current development potential is not entirely clear.

Mr. Rodgers, the real estate agent, said he was told by county officials that a scaled-down subdivision plan filed by the farm's previous owners in 1980, was still valid.

That plan, called Merrymans Farms, was filed under the less-restrictive RC5 zoning in effect then. It would allow as many as 33 homes on one- to four-acre lots on higher ground at the northeast and southeast corners of the property near York Road.

The remaining 152 acres on the valley floor could be divided into no more than three lots under its current RC2 zoning.

But county planning director Arnold Jablon said the Merrymans Farms subdivision plans lapsed in 1985. Any remaining development potential would total no more than 11 homes, "and probably less than that," he said. A final resolution of the issue would require a public hearing.

Even if the farm is kept intact, it may not remain the showplace it is today.

"There's no way I can guarantee that whoever buys it will maintain it the way we do," Mrs. Sparenberg said. She pays four full-time employees to fertilize and manicure the pastures and maintain the fences and machinery.

Mr. Rodgers estimates maintenance at $100,000 a year, although others in the area think it may be much higher.

It's not the ending she would have written. Ross Valley Farm was a challenge she tackled after her divorce from James P. Ryan, founder of the Ryland Group, Inc., a national homebuilding company. Together they had owned and run Rye Hill Farm in Carroll County.

She liked the looks of the old Merryman Farm near Hereford. Its 18th century stone buildings had succumbed to fire and gravity, its fields were abandoned or leased out and planted in corn.

"But you could still see the roll of the land," Mrs. Sparenberg said. Its two-year restoration "was a delight to do and an awful lot of fun."

It also cost an awful lot of money: "Just about what I'm asking for it. Certainly not less," she said.

Mrs. Sparenberg is asking $5.9 million. The state's full valuation on the land and buildings is just over $1.3 million, with property taxes this year of about $15,500.

There have been numerous inquiries since the "For Sale" sign went up on I-83 in May, Mr. Rodgers said. But the market is admittedly limited.

"This type of property is really geared to horse people," he said, and "more than likely it will be an out-of-town buyer."

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