Politicians bask in glow of Columbia 'jewel,' the Smith parcel Developers step aside, gave county a free, successful run at 300-acre farm

August 13, 1998|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

It was a sky-blue summer morning yesterday, a perfect setting for a bunch of politicians meeting on the edge of Howard County's latest acquisition, the 300-acre Smith farm in Columbia that's now destined to be a regional park.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening was there, beaming, crowing along with a chorus of other politicians about coming up with $10.7 million to secure what many consider a jewel of undeveloped land in the heart of suburbia.

It turned out to be a relative bargain, not so much because of any politician's clout, but because many other would-be bidders declined to compete with the county.

"Is it a lot of money? You're damn right it's a lot of money," said Thomas Scrivener, a Columbia developer. "But it probably would have gone for a lot more if the development community had rolled up their sleeves and gone for it."

Indeed, building a large subdivision in the heart of Columbia was an alluring proposition, but some developers believed community pressures made it politically and perhaps financially unrealistic for the land to become anything else but a regional park.

"I didn't think there was any chance it would go to a developer," said John Liparini of Nantucket Island Homes of Columbia. "The publicity about the farm itself, once Mrs. Smith died, and all the interest that was shown by the community to put something

together, I just didn't think there was a way that a developer could buy it or even afford to buy it."

"We didn't touch it," said Jim Schulte, vice president of Security Development Corp. in Ellicott City. "It was bound to be controversial, and we never thought it was going to go to the private sector."

The Smith family heirs -- Carolyn L. Smith of Baltimore and Tabi Williamson of Eureka, Calif. -- seemed prepared to give the county a fair chance to buy the property.

Schulte, Liparini and other developers said the county and state got a good deal by paying less than $36,000 an acre for the property. That was equal to the highest appraisal the county obtained, but it is rumored that a few builders, perhaps large national firms, offered significantly more. And a neighboring tract was recently valued by Ryland Homes at $130,000 an acre.

Meanwhile, for a number of reasons, developers watched from the sidelines instead of trying to outbid the county for the property once owned by the late Elizabeth Crowell "Nancy" Smith:

"It needed to be rezoned," Schulte said. A builder would have had to go through a lengthy, politically charged zoning process to win the right to put hundreds of homes on the property. "Obviously, the neighborhoods surrounding it would have been very concerned about what was going on there, and we try to avoid controversy. We don't try to get in the middle of it."

The sheer size of the property also meant it would take longer to develop and longer to make money -- both critical factors reflected in any buyer's offer.

The county could pay everything up front, which is more attractive to a seller. Builders often wait until they get approval for a development before paying full price.

"The county and the state were in a position to buy the property with cash, so I think that probably discouraged a lot of developers from considering the property," Liparini said. "It may have fetched a higher number, but it would have been paid over a longer period of time."

The one local developer most keenly interested in the property, of course, was the Rouse Co., which built pretty much everything that surrounds the farm. Rouse Senior Vice President Alton J. Scavo would not say whether his company made any informal offers for the property, but his comments may suggest Rouse was more an observer, ready to move in if the county failed to close a deal.

"We made it very clear that if it wasn't going to be a park, we wanted to be the developer," Scavo said. Then, with a chuckle, he added: "Between the county and the state, they're as large as any developer I know, so I think that they had abundant resources. Is that an advantage? You tell me."

Scrivener said there were other developers prepared to make offers for the property if the county didn't succeed. He said he stayed away because he thought it would be a good idea for the county to transform the farm into a park.

"I think generally, most had the same feeling that I'm claiming that I do, and that is, 'Let the public have a shot at them,' " Scrivener said. "If they could pull it off, God bless them. If they couldn't pull it off, I'm sure there were plenty of us waiting in the wings."

Developers said the politicians did the right thing because the community made clear it very much wanted the regional park-to-be, with its planned softball diamonds, soccer fields, tennis courts and basketball courts. Maybe even Richard B. Talkin, the attorney for the Smith family heirs, was hinting at this as he stood on the property yesterday and praised the politicians who came to share the moment yesterday.

"It's wonderful that they were able to make this happen," Talkin said. "The people wanted it, and it's a great thing to see it $H happen."

Minutes earlier, County Executive Charles I. Ecker, Dels. Shane Pendergrass, Frank S. Turner and Elizabeth Bobo, state Sen. Martin G. Madden and council members C. Vernon Gray, Mary C. Lorsung and Charles C. Feaga managed to squeeze together for a photograph with the governor.

Feaga curtly summarized the scene: "Politicians rushing to get credit."

Pub Date: 8/13/98

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