Park lovers, developers circle a 300-acre 'jewel'

April 23, 1995|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Sun Staff Writer

Blandair seems a forgotten place.

Vines curl around the old mansion's red bricks and its black-shuttered windows. Its once-proud white portico sags to one side on rotted timbers above a vine-choked front door.

The home of 81-year-old recluse Elizabeth C. "Nancy" Smith -- on 300 acres of undeveloped land near the heart of Columbia -- is the subject of intense disagreement between county officials and preservationists about how best to protect the parcel from development.

Suspicious of government and conservation groups alike, Miss Smith, who still lives at Blandair, adamantly refuses to make any public arrangements with either of them to preserve the land when she dies.

And while the county weighs condemnation of the property for parkland, developers -- including Rouse Co. -- wait to pounce on the Columbia area's last large undeveloped tract, thought by local developers to be worth more than $30 million.

That would be a tragedy, says Carol Nicholson, whose family lives near the northwestern edge of the property, close to woods that are home to foxes, deer and badgers.

"What the woman wants to be done with the property is how it should be zoned," says Ms. Nicholson. "If the woman wants it kept natural, I don't understand what business it is of anyone else's."

The property in question "is a jewel in the middle of Columbia," says former state Del. Virginia M. Thomas, who believes that the county is overdue in designating it as parkland.

Shaped like a wide hourglass between Columbia's Thunder Hill, Phelps Luck and Stevens Forest neighborhoods, the property is bisected by Route 175.

Miss Smith's father, Henry Smith, a well-to-do Baltimore real estate agent, bought the Blandair estate in 1937. A quarter-century later, Rouse Co. began buying the land around it for Columbia, whose Town Center was planted barely a mile to the west.

In the center of the northern half of the property is the historic building itself, named after Theodorick Bland, a 19th-century politician and judge in Maryland.

Feud's origin

Miss Smith's feud with state and county authorities began two decades ago when the state, with the county's blessing, sliced her property in half with Route 175, a four-lane, divided highway.

She remains bitter about the condemnation of a strip of her property for the highway -- so bitter that the money she received for the land remains in an escrow account, untouched, more than 20 years later.

Although she has voiced suspicion of county officials' motives when they say they would like to protect her property, there is little doubt about her resolve to protect Blandair.

She could not be reached through visits to her home and has an unlisted telephone number. But Miss Smith in the past has insisted that she wants the land kept free of development.

"I've done my best to prevent anyone from getting their hands on it. I knew since I was a little girl that people would turn everything else into a mess," she said in a 1990 interview with The Sun. "But people still want to get their hands on what's left."

County officials say they can be trusted to preserve the land.

"Whatever she wants, we'll do it -- if we can help, fine. If not, we'll leave her alone," says Joseph W. Rutter Jr., county director of planning and zoning.

Their concern about the property has escalated as word has gotten around that Miss Smith -- who never married and has no children -- is suffering health problems that require her food to be delivered to her at Blandair.

At this point, however, the county has been reluctant to pressure Miss Smith.

"I think it would be good to keep it open, or to keep it free from development, but it's really Miss Smith's decision, and I'm going to respect that," says County Executive Charles I. Ecker.

Others aren't so shy, however.

"I really think the county's running out of time," says Ms. Thomas. "If [Miss Smith] hasn't actually put this in a conservation easement at this point, I think the county needs to act and look at condemning it as parkland."

At first glance, the property would seem to have some protection under the county's 20-year growth blueprint, the 1990 General Plan.

The county Zoning Board in 1992 used that plan to zone the property under the category of "rural conservation," which is the most restrictive residential zoning in the county.

But that designation -- which allows only one house for 4.25 acres -- would not withstand a court challenge because of the intense development surrounding it, Mr. Rutter says.

"If you inherited that property, you'd be in here the next day asking for a zoning change," he says. "It's a mistake case -- you could blow us out of the water."

Even so, that zoning designation would let the county buy the development rights in the name of farmland preservation, should Miss Smith ever agree to that idea.

Easement favored

Ms. Thomas argues that the best solution is a conservation easement leaving Miss Smith on the property and the land untouched during her lifetime. After that, it would be developed as parkland.

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