Couple stands alone in land-use battle

August 01, 1993|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff Writer

When Model T's first spun their wheels in the thawing mud in front of R. Lee Curtis' farmhouse, it was enough to hitch a horse to pull them up the hill.

These days, the hill has been graded into a gentle paved slope, but there's still a problem with cars -- there are too many of them and not enough of Route 108.

Mr. Curtis, 83, is once again being called upon to get the traffic moving past the tall rows of corn on his property. But this time a horse won't do.

What Mr. Curtis and his wife, Lois, must do is give up some of their land for a six-lane highway, and, they say, be forced to sell the rest to developers.

"We're two old people who are alone fighting a bitter battle," said Mrs. Curtis of their struggle with a planned extension of Route 100 from Glen Burnie to Ellicott City.

Since the road first appeared on the county's General Plan in 1960, the couple have done little except worry about what it might do to their family farm of 110 years.

But on July 22, it became clear that the highway would be coming through their cornfields. Elected officials, including members of the County Council and state legislative delegation, recommended a highway alignment more damaging to the farm because it would save homes in the Hunt Country Estates neighborhood and satisfy federal regulators' concerns about damage to wetlands.

However, several of the officials, in casting their votes, asked that the taking of the Curtis property be dealt with as fairly as possible.

Before that, there was little notice taken of the elderly couple's wishes in the highway debate, Mr. Curtis said.

"We were left out of the picture entirely for quite some time. You'd think that Route 100 wasn't going to go through our property."

A route that would have taken the highway behind the Curtis Farm was approved by elected officials in 1987 and by the SHA in 1989, but it was scrapped because federal regulators said it would require the destruction of too much of the wetlands of the Deep Run stream.

State highway officials recommended shifting the route north, a proposal that was fiercely opposed by residents of Hunt Country Estates, where two homes would have had to be bulldozed.

One of two alternatives the community proposed -- shifting the route south of Deep Run -- sparked a lengthy battle between the community and its neighbors in the Village of Montgomery Run condominiums.

That southern alternative, dubbed the "Lazy S," would move the highway farther into the Curtis' property. While the original alignment or the northern alternative would have taken none of ++ their tillable land, the Lazy S would probably require about eight or nine acres.

Mr. Curtis says the lost land might make farming the land not worth the trouble of hauling equipment from Clarksville, home of their tenant farmers, Richard and Michael Warfield.

"The Warfields can't drag their big, heavy tractors and combines down the roads of Columbia just to farm 60 acres. It's hardly large enough now to justify farming it," Mr. Curtis said.

If that happens, the property would lose its agricultural tax break, he said. Without that, taxes would be too expensive for them to afford, forcing them to sell out.

But farmer Richard Warfield is more optimistic. Losing less than 10 acres would be unfortunate, but would probably not shut down the Warfields' 70-acre farming operation there, especially since the property nearest Deep Run is less than ideal for farming, he said.

"I wouldn't really want to go down below 50 acres," he said. "If it [the highway] is going where I think it is, it sounds like that's the best spot for it.

"It's shaded more so you don't get as much growth. And there's so many deer around that they eat up quite a bit of crop."

In the meantime, a decision last week by the county Zoning Board dramatically increased the value of the Curtis farm.

County Council members, in a Zoning Board work session, designated the property, along with the neighboring University of Maryland Horse Research Center, as a mixed-use site, allowing large-scale development of houses, apartments, shops and businesses.

When finalized, the rezoning would make the property a windfall for its owners and a prime location for development. Now worth )) between $100 and $400 an acre as agricultural land, parts of it could be worth up to $200,000 an acre for high-value uses such as a shopping center, say local commercial real estate brokers and state property assessors.

The possibility of mixed-use on the site prompted some Hunt Country Estates residents to charge that the couple wants to spare the land's development potential, not its farming viability.

That makes Mr. Curtis bristle.

"We didn't ask for mixed use to start with; that was the county's idea," Mr. Curtis said.

But now that county planners have proposed it, the Curtises favor the idea.

"Mixed use sounds more reasonable if they're going to put the highway through it," Mrs. Curtis said. "Who wants to live next to a highway?"

The Curtises say they have resisted developer's entreaties for years and refused to sell their home. Keeping the highway at bay will allow them to continue doing so, they say.

"This is our home. Lee was born here and our children were born here," said Mrs. Curtis.

As for their sons, Robert L. Curtis Jr. of Knoxville, Tenn., and Glenn Curtis of Columbia, S.C., she said, "their turn will come when we're gone."

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