The farm of Elizabeth C. "Nancy" Smith -- almost 300 acres of undeveloped land in the middle of Columbia along Route 175 -- is worth almost $8 million, according to an appraisal, but the fate of the land remains uncertain.
Smith, who never married and had no children, died in February at age 82 without a will, leaving dozens of distant relatives, preservationists and developers eyeing her land.
According to the appraisal by Lipman Frizzell & Mitchell of Lutherville at the request of Baltimore attorney Forrest F. Bramble Jr., who represents the land's probable heirs, if the three parcels that constitute the Smith estate are developed, more than 200 housing units could be built on the land.
Some say the $7.68 million appraisal, which was submitted to the county's Office of Register of Wills last week, is too high.
"That's a sizable value," said Alton Scavo, a Rouse Co. vice president, indicating the assessed value was more than that of comparable tracts elsewhere in the county.
Joseph W. Rutter Jr., county planning and zoning director added: "The property is in a great, central location, but where's the money [to buy it]?"
But other county officials and community activists interested in the land said they were surprised that the land wasn't worth more.
Former attorneys for Smith had estimated the land to be worth between $15 million to $30 million.
"The price is kind of surprising," said Gary Arthur, acting chief of the county's Department of Recreation and Parks. "We thought it would be a lot more."
With federal inheritance taxes as high as 55 percent, Smith's heirs could face a huge tax bill that may force them to seek the highest bidder -- likely commercial interests, rather than preservationists.
Developing the land would require a zoning change. The bulk of the property seems to come under the county's 20-year growth plan, the 1990 General Plan. In 1992, the county Zoning Board used that plan to retain the Smith farm's agricultural zoning.
But that designation -- which allows one house for 4.25 acres -- likely would not withstand a court challenge because of the intense development around the property, Rutter said.
A recent map of proposed county parks designates the farm as an ideal location for a large regional park. In June, Columbia Association's governing body sent county officials a letter imploring them to acquire the coveted Smith farm for use as a park.
The Columbia Council made it clear that it wants Howard County obtain Smith's farm before builders do. Cecilia Januszkiewicz, a council member who drafted the proposal, said the county could use its land-condemnation procedures to take the land and turn it into much-needed recreation space for east Columbia.
"I think that if our elected officials let this deal pass by, they will be known for their lack of vision and courage," Januszkiewicz said. "This is an opportunity that won't come again."
But county officials say they have no money to acquire the property until 2000 at the earliest.
"It's a great location for a regional park with paths and fields, but we don't have the grant money to get it," Arthur said. The department receives $1.8 million to $2 million a year in federal and state grants, and the bulk of that is already allocated to projects.
County Executive Charles I. Ecker said it would take a partnership of Columbia Association, county, state, federal governments to afford the property.
"The feds, the state and all those interested are going to have to step up to the plate," Ecker said. "But it's difficult to get commitments until you have a parcel to show them."
The bulk of Smith's tract is hourglass-shaped and lies along east Columbia's Thunder Hill, Phelps Luck and Stevens Forest neighborhoods. The property, dubbed Blandair estate, is named for Theodorick Bland, a 19th-century politician and judge, who built his home on the northeastern portion of the farm -- a historic house that, in Smith's final years, fell into disrepair.
Smith's father, Henry E. Smith, a well-to-do architect and real estate agent, bought the estate in 1937. A quarter-century later, Rouse Co. began buying the land around it for Columbia, with Town Center -- the planned community's downtown -- barely a mile west of the property.
Not only did Nancy Smith refuse to sell to Rouse, but, apparently suspicious of government and conservation groups alike, she also refused to make arrangements to preserve her land from development. But after her death, it appeared that because she had no children, she was legally unable to control the land's fate, that its disposition reverted to the dictates of her father's will. Her father's heirs, Carolyn L. Smith of Baltimore and Tabi L. Williamson of California, asked for the assessment.
Nancy Smith's feud with state and county authorities began at least two decades ago, when the state, with the county's help, sliced her property in half by building Route 175, a four-lane divided highway. That left about 187 acres on the northeastern side of the highway and about 95 acres on the southwest. A third small parcel of about 11 acres is between Lightning View and Thunder Hill roads just north of Route 175.
Smith was so bitter about the condemnation of a strip of her property for the highway that state highway officials say she never cashed the $149,008 check for the land, money that is in an escrow account.
Pub Date: 8/14/97