Family may sell farmland to Ryland Heirs' disagreements could spur sale of 30 acres for houses

July 30, 1998|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

Charles E. and Samuel A. Ecker and their seven siblings own one of Columbia's most coveted assets -- a 30-acre undeveloped parcel of farmland off Oakland Mills Road that may soon go from corn to houses.

The brothers may make a deal as early as tomorrow with Ryland Homes to sell the land for $3.9 million, Charles Ecker said yesterday.

Since the brothers' mother, Helen Dorsey Ecker, died in February, the fate of the property has been up in the air because of family disagreements, the brothers say. The only way to settle the disputes seems to be to sell.

Located between the villages of Oakland Mills and Owen Brown, the property is at Oakland Mills Road and Old Montgomery Road, next to the much-sought-after Smith farm.

The Eckers' land is considered prime real estate in the mostly developed eastern portion of Columbia, off Route 175. At least 100 units could be built on the land, Howard County planners say.

"It is one of the precious few" undeveloped areas in Columbia, Joseph W. Rutter Jr., the county's planning director, said.

Some community leaders and planners speculate that if the Eckers get top dollar for their property it would enhance the value of the 300-acre Smith farm, increasing the likelihood that it would be sold to developers.

County officials have offered the two heirs of the Smith farm estate $10.7 million in a bid to make it parkland.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker, no relation to the Ecker brothers, says he is in negotiations with the Smith heirs' Columbia attorney, Richard B. Talkin.

The Eckers' developing their land "could very well make the Smith deal a bit iffy," he said.

Elizabeth C. "Nancy" Smith, the owner of the farm, an undeveloped parcel off Route 175, died in February 1997 without a will.

The Smith property would need a zoning change to allow houses to be built there, and costly water and sewer lines would have to be installed.

"If the Smith property goes to development, there would be a lot of holes to jump through," Rutter said.

"But the Ecker property is zoned already [for houses], has the utilities, the roads and the lines. It's just a matter of how long does it take for you to go through the development process," he said.

While the Ecker family seems ready to sell the land, many community groups -- some formed after Smith's death -- say they will protest further development in that area because of traffic and noise.

"Maybe the developers will be happy with 30 acres and not go after the Smith farm," said Cecilia Januszkiewicz, a member of the Columbia Council who has served on committees to preserve the Smith farm. "They will be in for a fight to change the zoning on the Smith farm."

For brother Charles Ecker, 65, losing the family's farm means losing a way of life.

Standing at his fruit and vegetable stand, he traces his family's ownership of the land to 1907, when his father came from Frederick and bought 100 acres off Oakland Mills Road backing up to the Smith farm.

In the 1940s, with "things being tight having nine mouths to feed," Ecker said, his father balanced farm chores with a full-time job as a carpenter in Washington.

"I was milking cows by the time I was 12 and harvesting corn," Charles Ecker said as he looked over fields of corn and tomatoes. "We worked out in the city, and we kept up the farm. It ain't no 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. job. It's work from the time the sun comes up till the sun goes down."

Except for the 30 acres that might be sold, most of the original farm his father bought has Columbia houses on it. Some wooded land is open space owned by the Columbia Association.

Oakland Mills Road, which was a dirt road when the Eckers moved in, is now a thoroughfare bringing about a dozen patrons an hour to the roadside fruit stand.

Charles and Samuel Ecker spend much of their afternoon at the fruit and vegetable stand they've run for almost a decade.

"It's enough to pay the taxes on the house and the farm," said Charles Ecker.

The brothers would rather not sell, but they say they are being forced to by divisions within the family.

"It's kind of tragic to leave it when it's all you've ever known," said Charles Ecker. "I like to watch the stuff grow, but the others are moaning and groaning to sell it."

Pub Date: 7/30/98

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