Undeveloped 300-acre plot stirs interest Preservationists see different use for tract than developers do

Owner died without a will

Future of farmland, called 'jewel' of city, still to be decided

February 23, 1997|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

Eighty-two-year-old recluse Elizabeth C. "Nancy" Smith was buried last week without a will -- leaving the future of Columbia's largest tract of undeveloped land up for grabs.

The bulk of Smith's multimillion-dollar estate is 300 acres of much-sought farmland straddling Route 175 adjacent to several east Columbia neighborhoods. The county planning chief, Joe Rutter, calls the land -- worth at least $15 million -- "the jewel in the middle of Columbia."

"It's a hole in the middle of Columbia," Rutter said. "For the last 30 years, everybody's talked about all the possibilities of what could go there."

Big developers such as the Rouse Co., farmland preservationists and Howard County planners are among those with their eyes on Smith's property. A recent map of future county parks has a huge circle over the Smith farm, showing it as an ideal location for a large regional park.

Smith -- severely crippled from a horse-riding accident as a teen-ager -- did not marry and had no children. She died Feb. 15 without a will and apparently made no arrangements for the land. At her death, friends close to her said it was the first time she had been in the hospital since she was a teen.

She often talked of preserving her estate from development but deeply mistrusted land preservation groups and government agencies, associates say. She never even cashed a now 25-year-old $149,008 check from the state in payment for taking some of her land for Route 175.

In a 1990 interview with The Sun, Smith said: "I've done my best to prevent anyone from getting their hands on it. But people still ++ want to get their hands on what's left."

Close friends say that Smith died with her attorney and a longtime caretaker at her side, urging her -- unsuccessfully -- to sign a will. Her attorney -- Deborah G. Schubert of Harford County, who is seeking to become the administrator of Smith's estate and who did not return several messages Friday -- may end up at the center of a scramble for control of Smith's land.

"She didn't trust government officials and we respected that," Rutter said. "The difficult part now is will someone honor her wishes?"

Plot called Blandair

Smith's hourglass-shaped tract -- dubbed Blandair -- sits among east Columbia's Thunder Hill, Phelps Luck and Stevens Forest neighborhoods. The name came from Theodorick Bland, a 19th-century politician and judge, whose home is on the northeastern portion of the farm -- a historic home that, in Smith's final years, fell into deep disrepair.

Her father, Henry E. Smith, a well-to-do architect and real estate agent, bought the estate in 1937. A quarter-century later, Rouse Co. began buying the land around it for Columbia, with Town Center -- the planned community's downtown -- barely a mile west of the property.

Suspicious of government and conservation groups alike, Smith apparently refused to make arrangements to preserve her land from development.

Her feud with state and county authorities began two decades ago when the state, with the county's help, sliced her property in half by building Route 175, a four-lane divided highway. That left about 200 acres of her property on the northeastern side of the highway, with the remaining 100 acres southwest of the highway.

Smith was so bitter about the condemnation of a strip of her property for the highway that state highway officials say there's a $149,008 check in an escrow account.

"She didn't need the money, and it didn't mean anything to her," said Carrie Ecker, a neighbor and personal caretaker for the past 10 years. "She had her house, and she was just happy staying here."

The property would seem to be protected under the county's 20-year growth plan, the 1990 General Plan. In 1992, the county Zoning Board used that plan to outline the most restrictive residential zoning in the county.

But that designation -- which allows only one house for 4.25 acres -- likely would not withstand a court challenge because of the intense development around the property, Rutter said.

'The perfect spot'

Without a will, many have their eyes on the estate.

"It's the perfect spot for a park, just east of U.S. 29 and in the middle of everything," said Jane Lancos, a member of a county parks department's advisory board. "It's an opportunity that's too good to miss. That land would be perfect for ball fields or play areas or walking paths. Unfortunately, it's also ideal for building houses."

Rouse Co. has approached Smith in the past for just that.

"It's a couple-hundred-acre hole right in the middle of villages," said Alton Scavo, a Rouse vice president. "If someone were to sell it, we'd obviously look at it."

If the company bought the land, Scavo said, it would likely be developed as part of Oakland Mills village in much the same fashion as the village -- a mix of detached houses, townhouses and perhaps some commercial uses.

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