Panel meets to help save key farmland Task force seeking options to prevent parcel's development

'Jewel' in middle of town

Owner left no will

officials want area to be park, open space

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 gaining hold of the land.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

The effort follows the Feb. 15 death of the farmland'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 rTC 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, a Howard County Conservancy trustee, 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 they 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 Joseph W. Rutter Jr., the county's planning and zoning director. "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 future being undecided.

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.

"I've heard so many people discuss their ideas for that property," he said. "But Miss Smith was always cautious so she wouldn't sign anything, and ultimately she didn't. Now it faces the sad likelihood that it may get developed."

But the process of sorting out who will inherit the land promises to be so complicated that settling Smith's estate could take a year or more, according to officials in the Howard County Register of Wills.

A review by officials yesterday of the will of her father, Henry E. Smith, offered a new twist. According to Kay K. Hartleb, Howard County's register of wills, Henry E. Smith -- who died in 1939 -- left his estate to his wife, Lillian, and daughter, Elizabeth.

According to a provision in the will, they were to make arrangements for the property through their own wills. If they didn't, the estate reverted to his heirs. Like Elizabeth, Lillian made no arrangements for the land in her will.

"Both the mother and the daughter had the power to appoint someone or dispose of the land in anyway they wished," Hartleb said. "They didn't, so it reverts back to any of Mr. Smith's surviving heirs."

No heirs of Henry Smith have been identified, according to Orphans Court records. An extensive genealogical search will be done to identify Henry Smith's heirs, court officials said.

Ten cousins of Elizabeth Smith have come forward, according to the county's Register of Wills. Smith never married or had children.

Two of these cousins -- both from Baltimore -- have requested to be the personal representative of the estate. The personal representative could earn a commission worth a couple of hundred thousand dollars, officials said. The Orphans Court will appoint a personal representative next week in a hearing.

Pub Date: 3/04/97

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