Proposals abound for Smith land 300-acre county tract in Columbia drawing attention of activists

'Feverish pace' of ideas

Howard has no funds set aside for project

election also a factor

August 12, 1998|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

Howard County officials might have won the battle to get the last piece of undeveloped land smack in the middle of Columbia, but the debate over how to turn 300 acres off Route 175 into a regional park seems to be just beginning.

Barely a day after County Executive Charles I. Ecker announced the $10.7 million purchase Monday, activists from politicians and Columbia residents to preservationists and sports enthusiasts seem to want a piece of the land.

Soccer, lacrosse and baseball supporters want more fields for their growing teams. A Columbia soccer group's attorney is trying to ensure that if his group puts up $1 million, it would get lease rights to at least eight soccer fields.

Historians worry that recreation areas would ruin plans to restore the early 19th-century house on the property. Some County Council members want to wait up to a year to devise a detailed, comprehensive plan.

The county's recreation and parks staff has been working the past few days on a $17 million plan that would include walking paths, lighted tennis courts and a farm museum.

Said Jim Carlan, president of the Soccer Association of Columbia, to which more than 5,300 youths belong: "Everybody wants a piece of this action. The county is going to have to make hard decisions as to what the mix of recreation is now that they've finally got it.

"There will be a feverish pace of people with ideas of what to use it for," Carlan said.

No money is in the county budget for development of the land. Some County Council members said it would be at least three years before money could be allocated in the capital budget for the park.

"I don't see the money for this coming in quick," said Gary J. Arthur, director of the county Recreation and Parks Department. "It's the largest acquisition the county has ever made."

Final decisions on the park's design might have to wait for the November election, when voters will elect a new County Council and a replacement for Ecker, who is running for governor.

Ecker said he will ask 12 local leaders, planners and recreation officials to develop plans for the park. This group was formed more than a year ago, in anticipation of a purchase of the land.

The recreation and parks proposals for the land would use Route which is Columbia's main east-west thoroughfare and splits the land, as a dividing line.

The 200 acres north of Route 175 would be for more passive recreation, including walking paths, nature trails and picnic areas in meadows. Arthur said the run-down barns and sheds on the property might be restored and used as a farm museum.

The estimated 100 acres south of Route 175 would be for more active use. There, playgrounds and tennis courts, lacrosse and soccer fields, baseball diamonds -- some with lights -- would be built. Arthur said a blacktop area for roller hockey would be included.

Eleven heavily wooded acres off Thunderhill Road would remain for possible use as a bird sanctuary.

Competition for fields

The intense interest in new ball fields underscores how the pace of home construction in the county has outstripped creation of fields, coaches and recreation officials say.

Sports enthusiasts say they need the bulk of the land for fields. The competition for fields can be intense as athletic groups grow, with complaints that county fields are run-down from overuse, they say.

"We're so adamant about being involved in the land because we've got a huge constituency," said Carlan, the Soccer Association of Columbia president. "We need a home so we can have quality fields to play on that aren't all chewed up."

In the past two years, the number of youths younger than age 18 in his organization has grown from 3,500 to 5,300.

Columbia residents who use recreation facilities provided by the Columbia Association also might want priority.

"Columbia residents pay county taxes, and they pay a tax to the CA and very little comes back to us in terms of recreation," said Alex Hekimian, a member of the Columbia Council from Oakland Mills village, which borders the land. "This is an opportunity for Columbia residents to see the money coming back to them."

Proposed heavy use of the land for athletic fields has drawn concern from local historians and preservationists who worry how the fields would affect the character of the historic house. As part of the deal, the county has agreed to find someone in the private sector to renovate it.

Historic house 'unique'

"If they put ball fields close to the house, it would lose its impact," said Lynne Humphries of the Howard County Historical Library in Ellicott City. "It's unique to have a historic house left in this area."

The proposals for the land are what its former owner, Elizabeth C. "Nancy" Smith, fought until her death last year. Known as an eccentric recluse, Smith, who never married, died without a will. Two of her cousins -- in California and Baltimore -- are her heirs.

Howard County Councilman C. Vernon Gray helped to push Gov. Parris N. Glendening to provide financial support to buy the farm. Ecker led the negotiations with the heirs and their attorney.

Favoring "limited use" of the property, Gray said, "Whatever's proposed, we want this to really remain primarily an open space."

Charles C. Feaga, a council member who is running for county executive, urged caution.

"If we jump now on how to develop this land, we will eat it up," he said. "We've taken a long, long time to get it. Let's not be foolish with it.

"You can't grow more land."

Pub Date: 8/12/98

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