Recluse may have planned land mess Friends of farm owner who died without will point to shrewd tactic

March 23, 1997|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

By all accounts, Elizabeth C. "Nancy" Smith was eccentric.

She once took an ailing cow to the vet in her powder-blue 1970 Volkswagen bug. She fired shots at a school official who trespassed on her land. She got a $149,000 check from the state in 1972 -- but never cashed it.

Some preservationists and planners say the 82-year-old recluse had to have been irrational not to arrange for her long-stated goal: long-term protection for her 300 acres of undeveloped farmland straddling Route 175 in the middle of east Columbia.

Smith died last month without a will -- leaving the strong possibility that relatives would sell her land to commercial developers.

But Smith's friends say Smith may have been crazy like a fox.

They say the legal mess she left behind could be an ingenious stalling tactic -- delaying a fate that she figured was inevitable: the development of her land.

"She's in a better place, looking down and smiling, knowing that she doesn't have to deal with this arrogance of sorting out her land," said David Clarke, a longtime friend. "She knew no one could guarantee her land would stay undeveloped forever, so she just left it. She thought, 'Eventually they're going to fight over it, so let them fight over it.'

"She actually got the last laugh," said Clarke as he looked over the wheat fields on Smith's land recently. "She held on to her land until her death."

The twist here is that Smith likely knew what few others -- or no one else -- knew: Because she had not married or had children, the land was part of her father's estate -- and, by the terms of his will, was to go to relatives on his side of the family.

This legal turn of events only came out in the first hearing on Smith's estate, held March 12 in Howard County Orphans' Court in Ellicott City.

"If the property was never in her estate, it may not have been an asset of hers to devise plans for through a will," said Jodi O'Day, a representative with the Maryland Conservation Fund in Annapolis. "Maybe she knew that and decided to leave it."

There is no question that Smith did not march to the tune of money -- a tune that ultimately led most of her neighbors to sell their land to the Rouse Co. and other developers.

Smith was renowned in Columbia for her unabashed stubbornness -- bordering on hostility -- when it came to maintaining her privacy and protecting her land. She wouldn't even answer the door to most visitors and threw away many letters without opening them, said her longtime caretaker, Carrie Ecker.

Repeated offers

For decades, developers repeatedly approached Smith with offers to buy her land. Rouse officials made her a half-dozen offers, including offering to move her to the Eastern Shore, former Rouse employees say.

"We were never able to reason with her," said Robert Tennenbaum, a former Rouse architect-planner. "Here was a person you couldn't even sit down and have a rational conversation with, and the outcome is what we have today -- mass confusion."

When asked what would happen to her land after she died, she said in a rare interview with Columbia Magazine in 1990: "That's nobody's goddamned business. You're welcome to print that."

Few got beyond Smith's facade of suspicion and hostility.

"She was a very sophisticated woman who didn't give a damn about how she looked," said Anita Iribe, a friend who lives in Highland. "You would never know from looking at her that she had millions of dollars."

An avid animal lover, Smith once bred Arabian horses on her Columbia farm. In a black-and-white photo from the early 1940s, she is shown wearing traditional English riding attire, seated on one of her Arabians.

A teen-age riding accident crippled Smith, forcing her to walk with a cane. But even in her later years, Ecker said, she always wore riding pants and a turtleneck.

"She was an outdoors person who adored horses, probably more than people," Ecker said. "Animals were her life. She'd have pigs, cattle, horses, cats and dogs. She had so many animals, she bought food by the ton."

She shut herself off from the world, friends say, because of the pressure to sell her land.

In the last five years of her life, even her friends scarcely saw her. And as her land's value rose -- it's estimated to be worth from $15 million to $30 million -- Smith became an embittered old woman.

"She became more and more isolated from real-world activities," Iribe said. "She wasn't living in the past; she just wasn't happy with the present. To her, the present was people coming after her land."

Added Frances Mason, who knew Smith for almost 50 years: "She just didn't want people encroaching on her oasis in the middle of Columbia. I think the Rouse Co. was just plain old cruel to Nancy Smith. It was a terror for her to have people continuously dropping letters in her door and knocking. People talk about her as if she was an idiot, but I just think they harassed her so much that she couldn't make up her mind of who she could trust."

Protested Route 175

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