Smith sought to preserve farm, 2 say Trust reportedly drawn up, but she died before signing

Friend, lawyer comment

Ohioan says he has documents 'to ensure her wishes are met'

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

An Ohio man and a Harford County lawyer said that Elizabeth C. "Nancy" Smith planned to put her 300-acre farm that stands in the middle of Columbia into a trust to protect it from development. But she never got around to signing the documents, they said.

Byron C. Hall of Centerville, Ohio, said this week he plans to submit documents to Howard County Orphan's Court -- which is considering the fate of the property -- to prove that Smith intended to protect her farm from development. Smith died in February without a will.

"Miss Smith was very particular about the future of her land; she quibbled over details and unfortunately never got around to signing anything," said Hall, who added that he knew Smith for nearly 30 years, ever since they communicated about an article he wrote on Columbia.

"I think there's enough documentation to ensure her wishes are met," he said in a telephone interview. "There's overwhelming anecdotal testimony that she wanted it preserved."

Harford County attorney Debra G. Schubert, who represented Smith over the past two years, said she had drawn up documents similar to Hall's to preserve the land for Smith, but never could get them "to her liking."

Schubert said she took Smith the "final version of a document to preserve her land" Feb. 14 -- the day before she died -- for her signature.

"The documents appeared to be to her satisfaction, but she was feeling under the weather that day, so we were going to arrange for her to sign them shortly thereafter," Schubert said. "But unfortunately, the next day she went to the hospital and died that night."

Another lawyer and a county official said that because Smith didn't sign the documents, they are worthless.

"That's all well and good that Smith wanted to preserve her land, but without her signature, the documents don't mean much," said attorney George Reynolds, who worked with Schubert in representing Smith. "As a legal matter, [Hall is] wasting his time."

Kay Hartleb, Howard County's register of wills, added: "Lots of times, people make up wills or talk of their intentions, but don't sign anything. If they don't sign it, it simply isn't valid."

After hearing how close Smith was to signing the documents Schubert had prepared, Hall said he decided to get involved.

"I got this fire in my belly that I was going to do my utmost to make sure her wishes were carried through," said Hall, 59. "And I have no financial interest in this other than to see her farm preserved."

According to Hall, Smith had developed a plan to preserve her property nearly 25 years ago. In 1983, he drafted preservation documents.

"Blandair Plantation"

Smith's plan, he said, was to establish the "Blandair Foundation" to act as a group that would "preserve, protect and maintain the buildings on the property," dubbed Blandair for Theodorick Bland, a 19th-century politician and judge who once owned it.

Hall said the plans called for Smith to place her estimated $4.5 million worth of assets as an endowment for the foundation, deed the title of the land to the foundation and thereby save the property from encroaching development.

Hall and two others -- one who is Smith's cousins and a third person he refused to identify -- were to be appointed as trustees by Smith to oversee the foundation, Hall said. The trustees would decide the best use of the land, according to Hall, but could not allow it to be developed for commercial use.

But Hall said Smith turned down two drafts that he wrote, telling him they weren't exactly right. He said Smith had talked of making her property into a park, a nature conservancy and even a rehabilitation center for horses.

"She wanted an iron-clad guarantee that her land wouldn't be developed," Hall said. "She decided the only way to do that was to set up her own foundation. She didn't want to spend money on fixing up her house; instead she wanted to let her assets keep accumulating for the endowment."

Attorney Forrest F. Bramble Jr., who represents Carolyn Smith -- one of the cousins on her father's side -- said he has heard of Hall's ideas.

Taxes are a concern

"I think the heirs are going to look at everything right now," Bramble said. "They and I don't have the faintest notion of what they want to do with it. We're still trying to get the house cleaned up. We need to see what kind of an animal we have here."

But Ruth McClees, one of the appointed personal representatives of Smith's estate, said she is concerned how the heirs will pay federal inheritance taxes, which can run as high as 55 percent. Facing such a huge tax bill may force the heirs to seek the highest bidder -- likely commercial interests rather than preservationists.

"I have no idea what they are planning to do with the land, but I just wonder, what do we pay the estate taxes with?" McClees asked.

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