Like Garbo, Nancy Smith wanted to be left alone


March 09, 1997|By NORRIS WEST

SURE, IT WOULD be nice to preserve Elizabeth C. Smith's "jewel in the middle of Columbia" as a park or farmland. A rural oasis in the core of a semi-urban community appeals to the heart.

But saving every acre is not necessarily the smartest option.

It may be smarter to develop part of the 300 acres. At the very least, it would be "smart growth."

The late "Nancy" Smith's beloved farm is part of Howard County's water and sewer district and is served by other infrastructure, including Route 175, which bisects the property.

Ms. Smith's farm also is ideal for development because it borders two of Columbia's older villages, Oakland Mills and Long Reach.

Building on Ms. Smith's farm would be anti-sprawl. It fits into the governor's smart growth plan, which aims to curb sprawling development by using state dollars to direct new projects to established areas. Indeed, it is expensive to build new roads, schools and other capital projects in unspoiled parts of the state.

Preservationists, naturally, would prefer to keep Ms. Smith's property as it is.

Michael Day, chief of preservation services at the Maryland Historical Trust, is one of them.

But Mr. Day acknowledges that growth in an established residential center is not the worst environmental disaster. "We would prefer to see this land developed than to have sprawl take place in outlying areas that do not have infrastructure in place," he says.

Build and preserve

Also, it is unrealistic to expect all 300 acres to be spared from development, notes Del. Frank S. Turner, who hopes a task force he created with Del. Shane Pendergrass and Sen. Martin G. Madden will find a compromise to preserve open space there.

When the reclusive Ms. Smith died Feb. 15 at age 82, she left behind property with an estimated value of $15 million to $30 million, but she apparently left no guidance for its destiny. The property has a historic home that was owned by 19th century politician and judge Theodore Bland.

Heirs will have to pay estate taxes as high as 55 percent of the property's value, which would make it difficult for them not to sell to developers.

While Ms. Smith was alive, she could have negotiated with the Maryland Environmental Trust or another agency to perpetually preserve part or all of the land, says Jim Highsaw, the trust's easement program manager.

Now it may take state, if not divine, intervention to spare part of the land from bricks and mortar. But Mr. Turner is hopeful.

"There are a lot of possibilities," says the delegate, whose district covers the property. "There is a big piece of the parcel on the north side and a smaller piece on the south side. Either the larger or smaller part might be developed and the other part can be preserved."

This cauldron of competition among developers, preservationists, relatives and lawyers could have been avoided. But Ms. Smith didn't have a will, was never married and did not have children.

She clearly detested developers and the thought that her property might fall into their hands. But she also turned away preservationists and county officials. She turned away all comers; she wouldn't allow County Executive Charles I. Ecker past her screen door.

Even on her deathbed, she refused to sign a will that could have settled the issue, or at least provide some guidance.

"It's so sad that because of her mistrust of government, as I understand it, that the exact thing she didn't want to happen to the property very well could happen," says Mrs. Pendergrass, who hopes the county, state and federal governments can help spare the land.

The most compelling story about her refusal to cooperate with anyone about the land is that she never cashed a $149,000 check the state sent her as compensation when it exercised its power to take a strip of the land to build Route 175. Like Greta Garbo, she just wanted to be left alone.

One could easily surmise that she would choose preservation over development. But her refusal to put her wishes in writing is what opened a vault of possibilities to everyone she resisted for three decades.

New village center?

It has the ring of a cash register to some. The Rouse Co. could expand the villages of Long Reach and Oakland Mills. Could this become the new Oakland Mills village center? Another developer might want to build an out-parcel of Columbia. Mixed-use centers also are in vogue.

Preservationists would prefer leaving the property as open space. County Recreation and Parks officials have identified the site as being ideal for a regional park.

County planners are ready to spring into action over any proposal for Ms. Smith's hourglass-shaped property, which planning chief Joseph W. Rutter appropriately dubbed "the jewel in the middle of Columbia."

A regional park should occupy part of the land. But some smart growth would not necessarily tarnish this jewel's luster.

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

Pub Date: 3/09/97

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