Two big deals Like AlliedSignal swap, Smith farm presents a unique proposition.

September 24, 1997

WITH NARY A BLINK, the Ecker administration agreed to spend $7.5 million to prevent AlliedSignal Technical Services Corp., one of Howard County's largest and most prestigious employers, from leaving town. At the same time, county government is torn by whether to shell out millions to preserve the last big farm in central Columbia.

The two properties are not related, except that they carry roughly the same price tag and both present uniquely critical opportunities.

AlliedSignal is one of the crown jewels in Howard's business portfolio. County Executive Charles I. Ecker would have been pilloried for allowing the aerospace company to leave after three decades in Columbia without making a strenuous effort to keep it. His offer to buy the company's existing site on the condition that it moves elsewhere in the county raised eyebrows, but hasn't met great opposition because the alternative -- 900 jobs lost -- is much less appealing.

Mr. Ecker, however, has not been so anxious to open the coffers to preserve part or all of the East Columbia farm that Elizabeth C. "Nancy" Smith owned before she died earlier this year. The 300-acre parcel has been appraised at $7.7 million.

To Mr. Ecker, AlliedSignal was meat and potatoes. But he shouldn't view the Smith Farm as mere dessert. Though it will not expand the tax base, it is a rare green oasis in a fast-growing, semi-urban community. Mr. Ecker, county and state lawmakers and the Columbia Council all have expressed interest in preserving the land. They must move toward a commitment.

Ms. Smith never married, never had children, never left a will. Her lawyers tried unsuccessfully to convince her to make binding her wish that the land remain undeveloped. No one knows what the Smith heirs will do as they face millions of dollars in state and federal estate taxes. The administrator of the estate, a cousin of Ms. Smith's, is a librarian in Baltimore who is mum on her plans. But if those who favor preservation fail to move soon, the heirs may begin talking to developers with cold cash.

The Smith Farm question is similar to AlliedSignal in one other way: An overly conservative reaction could have negative repercussions that would be felt for a long time.

Pub Date: 9/24/97

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