2 likely to inherit Smith land are identified

March 13, 1997|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

The names of the two relatives most likely to inherit Elizabeth C. "Nancy" Smith's 300 acres of undeveloped farmland in east Columbia emerged yesterday at the first court hearing to sort out who will manage the estate of the recently deceased recluse.

Carolyn Smith of Baltimore, and Tabi Williamson of Eureka, Calif., claim they are first cousins of Elizabeth Smith's on her father Henry E. Smith's side of the family, based on a family tree presented by Baltimore attorney Frederick Steinmann.

That would entitle them to the land straddling Route 175 -- worth an estimated $15 million to $30 million -- according to officials in the county's Office of the Register of Wills.

At the hearing in Howard County Orphans Court yesterday, two personal representatives -- Jane Pumphrey Nes and Ruth B. McClees, both of Baltimore and also first cousins of Smith's -- were appointed to oversee the distribution of her personal property apart from her land, about $4.5 million worth of securities and cash.

Smith died Feb. 15. She never married or had children, and she did not leave a will. Kay K. Hartleb, Howard County's register of wills, says that, in the absence of a will, control of Smith's farmland reverts to her father's side of her family as ordered by her father's will.

The rest of the estate, however, would go to Smith's closest relatives, who appear to be on her mother's side of her family, Hartleb says.

The Smith property, dubbed a "jewel in the middle of Columbia" by at least one county official, has been much sought after by developers, farmland preservationists and Howard County planners.

A recent map of future county parks has a large circle over the Smith farm, showing it as an ideal location for a large regional park. Last week, county legislators created a task force to monitor the property's future, fearing it may be turned over to residential development.

Smith often talked of preserving her estate from development but deeply mistrusted land preservation groups and government agencies, associates say. Her longtime caretaker Carrie Ecker says she had a will prepared but repeatedly changed it.

"She just couldn't [decide] what she wanted to do," said Ecker. "Now they'll get to decide."

But a twist in the will of Smith's father may leave the power to determine the land's fate in the hands of his closest living heirs, Williamson and Smith.

The will of Henry E. Smith, a well-to-do architect and real estate agent who died in 1939, gave his land to his wife, Lillian, and daughter, Elizabeth. But according to a provision in the will, they were to make arrangements for the property through their own wills. If they didn't, control over it reverts to the heirs of her father.

"It appears that the land is not part of Elizabeth Smith's estate, and it will distributed under Henry Smith's will that leaves it to his side of the family," Hartleb said.

But the fate of the property remains up in the air.

Thirteen cousins -- five on her father's side and eight on her mother's side -- have identified themselves, according to Hart-leb's office. After yesterday's hourlong hearing, three of the cousins and five attorneys stood outside the courtroom, whispering. But none would comment in detail on their plans.

"I really have nothing to say at this time," said Carolyn Smith, a librarian and a first cousin of Elizabeth Smith's on her father's side. The other cousin on her father's side, Williamson, was not present and could not be reached for comment.

A more detailed reading of Maryland inheritance laws is needed, Hartleb said, before any distribution of assets or other actions can be taken.

Meanwhile, developers, county planners and environmentalists are keeping their eyes on the property.

"That piece of land is central to all of Columbia," said Chick Rhodehammel, who manages the Columbia Association's open space. "Everybody's watching it thinking, 'Oh boy, wouldn't that be great for something."

Pub Date: 3/13/97

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