Howard buys prime parcel County beats builders to 300 acres some call 'jewel of Columbia'

Area to become park

$10.7 million deal ends intense bidding for recluse's property

August 11, 1998|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Gady Epstein contributed to this article.

Fending off developers, Howard County officials have purchased what some call the "jewel of Columbia," 300 acres that will now become a regional park in the center of the planned community.

The $10.7 million purchase concluded yesterday ends months of high-stakes negotiations with the landowners and assures worried community leaders that it will not be turned into another development along Route 175, Columbia's main thoroughfare.

Elizabeth C. "Nancy" Smith, the eccentric recluse who owned the land, had fought off developers, government officials and preservationists for decades, until her death last year at age 82. But she didn't leave a will, forcing two of her heirs -- cousins who don't live on the land -- to decide its fate.

"We've done it," County Executive Charles I. Ecker said. "The county owns the property and we're going to use it as a park."

The park, which could be developed within the next three years, will feature walking paths, picnic areas and soccer and baseball fields for overcrowded youth athletic leagues, Ecker said.

"It's wonderful. It will be the one oasis in this intensely developed area of the county," said Cecilia Januszkiewicz, a Columbia activist.

The expected cost of buying the land rose during the negotiations as county officials realized its value to developers. Ecker turned to the state for help, and Gov. Parris N. Glendening agreed to contribute $6.7 million, leaving the county's share at $4 million.

But creation of the park will be left to the county. Local groups are offering suggestions.

"The property is large enough to give each of us a little of what we want," said David Hatch, a community leader who lives near the farm. Ecker says he will have a group of local leaders, planners and park and recreation officials develop plans for the park.

A local soccer group with more than 5,000 youths says it will put up $1 million to build at least eight fields there. Officials at the Columbia Association, which oversees Columbia's recreation facilities, say they would consider helping to finance some of the park's operations and start-up costs.

"It would be an eastern [Columbia] version of Centennial Park," said Alton J. Scavo, a vice president of the Rouse Co., Columbia's developer, referring to the large county park on Columbia's northern border. "It will be a great amenity in an area that demands more recreation facilities."

How the deal began

The convoluted tale of how the deal came to be began with the death of Smith, who never married.

From the day of her funeral, which only a half-dozen people attended -- mostly attorneys she had fired over the years -- dozens of preservationists, athletic enthusiasts, developers and relatives have scrambled to get the property.

The cousins of Smith, Tabi Williamson of Eureka, Calif., and Carolyn L. Smith of Baltimore, received more than a dozen offers for the land, according to those familiar with the negotiations.

Ecker, who was initially reluctant to get involved in acquiring the property, had asked the state to match the county's $4 million, but after realizing the stiff competition -- mostly from developers for the site -- he asked for more. Some of the state's money for the land comes from "open space" program funds.

At one point, county officials said, the negotiations were at a standstill when the heirs couldn't agree on what to do with the land. "[The heirs] were cooperative," said Ecker. "They were very nice, but they were in no hurry."

Blandair park

Smith, who rarely left her house, repeatedly refused to discuss selling her land, purchased for her 60 years ago by an indulgent father. It was known as Blandair, for a 19th-century politician. As part of yesterday's agreement with the county, the park will be known as Blandair and the county will seek to restore the historic but now rundown house where Smith lived.

As the Rouse Co. bought up the 14,000 acres of farmland that became Columbia, she held out.

When the state decided to build Route 175 through her farm, Smith fought it. She never cashed a now 25-year-old, $149,008 check from the state in payment for taking some of her land.

She became known for such stunts as the time she shot at a school official who asked about buying her land, or the day she hauled a sick calf to the vet in her blue Volkswagen bug.

Few knew of her assets, which in addition to the land totaled more than $13 million, including stocks in dozens of South African mining companies and expensive antiques. The personal estate goes to other relatives.

Pleasing development?

Some of Smith's friends, who claim that she wanted the land to be left as a nature preserve, say Smith would be pleased.

Frances Mason, a longtime friend of Smith's who lives in Ellicott City, said: "Nancy didn't trust Howard County because she thought they'd wreck it somehow, but if it's done right, I don't think she'll mind."

Pub Date: 8/11/98

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