Several state legislators from Howard County want to form a task force to try to preserve 300 acres of undeveloped farmland in the middle of east Columbia along Route 175 -- land now likely to be sold because of the recent death of its reclusive owner.
Republican Sen. Martin G. Madden and Democratic Dels. Shane Pendergrass and Frank S. Turner are inviting environmentalists,
preservationists and county officials to meet Monday in Annapolis to discuss ways to preserve the estate of Elizabeth C. "Nancy" Smith.
They fear that the farmland -- worth an estimated $15 million to $30 million -- may be quickly sold by Smith's heirs to the highest bidder and developed into residential neighborhoods, adding to congestion, pollution and school crowding to the area.
"The price tag on this is a big-ticket item," Madden said. "We want to present them with a viable preservation alternative, when they are faced with the decision of what to do with the property. We know the developers will be there with their checkbooks as soon as they see a 300-acre farm in the middle of Columbia. We want to be there, too, and ready."
Long suspicious of government and conservation groups, Smith, who died Feb. 15, apparently refused to make arrangements to preserve her land from development. Close friends say she died with her attorney, Debra G. Shubert of Harford County, and a longtime caretaker, Carrie Ecker, at her side, urging her -- unsuccessfully -- to sign a will. She was 82.
Prospective heirs now may seek their share of Smith's estate through the Howard County Orphans' Court. Smith never married or had children; the court already has a list of 10 cousins.
The Orphans' Court on Feb. 19 appointed Shubert to maintain the estate and its property until a personal representative is chosen. Baltimore attorney Frederick S. Steinmann -- representing two of Smith's first cousins in Baltimore -- filed Monday to play that role. A hearing on that issue is scheduled for March 12.
For decades, such big developers as the Rouse Co., farmland preservationists and Howard County planners have been eyeing Smith's property. A recent map of future county parks shows the farm as an ideal location for a large regional park. Agricultural groups have suggested making it an education center.
"The land is a tremendous asset to the eastern portion of the county," Pendergrass said. "If it's undeveloped, it doesn't generate schoolchildren or traffic, but instead it generates oxygen and open space. Once it's gone to more development, it's gone."
County agricultural preservationist Donna Mennitto calls the property "a doughnut hole" in Columbia.
"It's the largest undeveloped tract of land in Columbia and everybody wants it," she said. "Everything around it has been turned into houses. The idea that there's 300 acres sitting there is amazing."
At least one cousin already says she is eager to sell the land. "We can listen to whatever they have to say," said Mary B. Greenberg of Woodbine, who says she is a first cousin once removed of Smith's. "I'm interested in getting some money though, so I'd have to see which way -- preserving it or selling it -- will work."
With federal inheritance taxes as high as 55 percent, Smith's heirs could face a huge tax bill that may force them to seek the highest bidder -- likely commercial interests, rather than preservationists.
"After the heirs pay off all the taxes on it there may not be much left and they may have to end up selling the property just to cover the expense basis," said Jim Highsaw, an easement manager with the Maryland Environmental Trust, a nonprofit group that has preserved about 51,000 acres in the state. "For some people, that doesn't always make it too appealing to put it in a preservation."
But some neighbors say they are worried by the prospect of more development in the area.
"I would hate to see it developed and become like everything else in Columbia," said David Hatch, chairman of the Oakland Mills Village Board, whose neighborhood surrounds the property. adds luster to the village to have it there, undeveloped and left alone."
But even some county officials doubt a state task force could affect the land's future.
"Anybody can form a task force," said county planning chief Joseph W. Rutter Jr. "We know Miss Smith wanted her property to be preserved and not have the government's hands on it.
"Should we be dictating how the government should take over the property? I don't think so."
Pub Date: 2/27/97