Effort is on to save Columbia farm parcel Hastily formed task force confers on Smith 'jewel'

March 04, 1997|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

In an article in Tuesday's Howard County edition of The Sun, Rupert Friday, a planner in the Maryland Office of Planning, was incorrectly quoted. In reference to the future of Elizabeth C. "Nancy" Smith's property in Columbia, he said: "I'm sure there are sharp land-use attorneys who are already knocking on the heirs' doors after the place."

The Sun regrets the error.

State and local officials launched a belated effort yesterday to protect from development 300 acres of farmland in the middle of east Columbia along Route 175.

About a dozen state legislators, environmentalists, preservationists and officials from Howard County gathered in Annapolis for the first meeting of a hastily formed task force charged with finding options on how to keep commercial interests from getting the land.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

The effort follows the Feb. 15 death of the land's reclusive owner, 82-year-old Elizabeth C. "Nancy" Smith, who did not leave a will.

Legislators say they fear the land -- worth an estimated $15 million to $30 million and described by one county official as "the jewel in the middle of Columbia" -- may be quickly sold by Smith's heirs to the highest bidder and developed into residential neighborhoods.

The choice, they say, is increased congestion along the already crowded Route 175 corridor vs. a regional park or protected open space.

"I'm sure there are shark land-use attorneys who are already knocking on the heirs' doors after the place," said Rupert Friday, a planner with the Maryland Office of Planning, who was at the meeting. "We want to get some alternatives to preserve that open land in the middle of Columbia out there soon.

"Unless her heirs end up being like the lady who returned the can of Campbell's soup with the jewels in it, somebody's going to want the money out of the estate," Friday said.

Republican Sen. Martin G. Madden and Democratic Dels. Shane Pendergrass and Frank S. Turner -- all of Howard County -- initiated the task force. James H. Eacker, who is a trustee of the Howard County Conservancy, was named head of the panel.

Lawyers and county officials say the task force does not stand a high chance of succeeding. They believe Smith's heirs are likely to face tremendous pressure to sell to the highest bidder because of federal inheritance taxes that may range as high as 55 percent.

Many of the options under consideration by the task force -- including building a park on the land or putting it under an open-space or agricultural easement program -- had been presented to Smith and rejected, officials acknowledge.

"Miss Smith was never interested in selling the property," said Joe Rutter, director of the county's planning and zoning. "She stuck to her guns and made it known to everyone. Her position was very clear: keep government hands off of it and keep developers' hands off of it."

Ironically, it was those sentiments that apparently led Smith to avoid making any arrangements -- and which have now led to the land's uncertain future.

Large developers -- such as the Rouse Co. -- farmland preservationists and Howard County planners have been eyeing Smith's property for decades. A recent map of future county parks shows the farm as an ideal location for a large regional park.

Dave Pardoe, a representative of the Central Maryland Audubon Society, said that he had unsuccessfully talked with Smith's attorneys before her death in an effort to get her to preserve the land.

"It's the last piece of open space in that whole area, and it's surrounded by houses and development," he said. "If there's going to be any kind of wildlife sanctuaries in Howard County, that's really the only place left to have it.

Pub Date: 3/04/97

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