State to buy land at Antietam, ban its development 20-acre parcel has appreciated 2,400% since 1986

November 07, 1993|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Staff Writer

SHARPSBURG -- Maryland is about to spend $716,000 to preserve the last remaining parcel of a historic farm near Antietam National Battlefield -- an undeveloped tract that sold for $30,000 less than a decade ago.

On those 20 acres, known as part of the Grove Farm in Civil War times, President Abraham Lincoln visited wounded Union soldiers and Gen. George McClellan after the battle of Antietam in 1862.

The value of the land, on the outskirts of sleepy, small Sharpsburg, appreciated by nearly 2,400 percent beginning in 1986, when the Washington County farm was subdivided and sold.

Although the price tag, which amounts to about $35,000 an acre, may give some pause, real estate brokers and economic officials said the cost is comparable to that of other commercial sites in Washington County.

"The price doesn't seem out of line for commercial property in that area," said Royd Smith, a Frederick real estate appraiser and a former state delegate. "It's unbelievable that commercial real estate is that high in the Hagerstown area, but it is."

Cost partly recoverable

The state's purchase was authorized recently by the state Board of Public Works. Some of that outlay will be recovered when the state sells the land for farming. Development, however, is banned.

Using equal shares of money from a federal transportation program and state funds for buying open space, Maryland officials will buy the land from a partnership in Gaithersburg, Mount Airy at Sharpsburg Ltd. The Gaithersburg group bought the site for $550,000 in 1988, intending to build a strip-shopping center and houses there.

"We've very glad the state is buying it," said Tom Clemens, president of the Save Historic Antietam Foundation. "What it means is that a historic property that relates to the battlefield can be seen in some context. Where Lincoln and McClellan met can be viewed as a farm instead of an isolated house sitting in the middle of a development."

Historic photograph

Their meeting, during which Lincoln questioned the controversial general's leadership, produced one of the Antietam battle's most recognizable photographs -- the two men facing one another outside a tent.

The tract on Route 34, south of Sharpsburg, is one of the few zoned for commercial use outside municipalities in southern Washington County.

"The price tag is high, and it's a lot of money to pay for 20 acres," said Jo Ann Frobouck, a member of Save Historic Antietam with Responsible Policies. "But it is part of the Grove Farm, and a lot of people feel that should be preserved. The money is there. If the state didn't spend it there, it would spend it somewhere else."

Rebecca Reid, a state Department of Transportation spokeswoman, said Maryland is paying the appraised price for the property, which is next to land that contains the brick farm house that served as McClellan's headquarters and as a hospital after the battle, the bloodiest single day in the Civil War.

Land speculation in the mid- to late 1980s, development pressures and changes in ownership boosted the price of the property during the last decade, real estate and others familiar with the property said.

Ownership turnover began in 1986, when Agnes Marcum-Elliott sold about 120 acres of the original Grove Farm land -- including the 20-acre parcel the state is buying now -- to South Valley Corp., Washington County land records show. South Valley paid $150,000, including $30,000 for the 20 acres the state is buying.

Several months before the sale, Washington County commissioners rezoned 12 of those 20 acres for commercial use despite opposition from preservationists -- and against county planners' recommendations.

After obtaining the zoning change, South Valley Corp. sold the tract in 1988 for $300,000 to a doctor and a partner from Washington, D.C.

Five months later, Mount Airy at Sharpsburg Ltd. bought the property, then, about a year later, won approval from the Washington County planning commission for building a shopping center.

David C. Hess, the Gaithersburg group's general partner, said the shopping center hadn't been built because no tenants could be found during the recent recession.

"Putting a shopping center there would have been horrendous," Mr. Clemens said. "It's unfortunate, but because of the action of county commissioners [in granting commercial zoning to the acreage], the state is spending over $700,000 to purchase the land. All these speculators made a windfall."

Mr. Smith, the appraiser, said that if the land had remained zoned for farming, its 1993 value would have been about $3,000 an acre -- about a 10th of its value as a commercially zoned tract.

Syd Machat, a real estate broker in Boonsboro, didn't place the blame entirely on land speculators, who, he said, saw value in the land's proximity to the battlefield.

"The land was up for sale for anyone to buy," he said. "All levels of government could have bought or condemned the property. The question to ask is, why didn't they?"

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