A Peak in the Valley

January 27, 1993

After a lengthy absence, the William Donald Schaefer of old might be mounting a comeback.

In his recent State of the State address, the governor seemed his familiar, idea-spouting, do-it-now self. And Monday, when he visited Towson to announce that he had changed his mind and now favored the public purchase of Satyr Hill Farm, observers remarked that Mr. Schaefer looked to be in an unusually chipper mood.

Whatever the cause of his renewed spirit, the governor couldn't have picked a better issue for which to revamp his activist approach than the preservation of the 220-acre Satyr Hill Farm in Baltimore County's beautiful Cromwell Valley.

The valley's pastoral splendor would make it prized by any standard, but it's especially precious for sitting just outside populous Towson. Since 1988, the Merrick family, the farm's owners, have sought to ensure the land's preservation by selling it to the state and the county. The two governments would split the $3.7 million price. Funds from the state's Open Space program were earmarked for the sale.

But when the economy soured, the program was stripped of $117 million to balance the state budget. Bond money would have to be used to buy threatened properties. Such bonds were available for the Satyr Hill Farm purchase, but the Board of Public Works, of which the governor is a member, blocked the deal for political reasons: Mr. Schaefer was getting his revenge on Baltimore County legislators who had opposed state tax increases passed last April.

Apparently, some of those same legislators -- with Mr. Schaefer's pal, Rep. Helen Bentley, and Mrs. Bentley's protege, County Executive Roger Hayden -- helped change the governor's mind by detailing for him the county's plans to turn the property into a self-sustaining model farm and recreational area. The legislators also might have softened up the governor when they cooperated in approving a $147 million budget cut last fall.

The public works board will meet Feb. 3 and likely approve the use of bonds to buy the property. County officials can then begin implementing their plans. They can even start dreaming up concepts for the other two large farms in the valley, because Mr. Schaefer now says he would favor a state purchase of those properties as well.

If the Schaefer of old is back, he returns not a moment too soon for those who have sweated the fate of the agricultural gem called Cromwell Valley.

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