Leaders survey farm that will become park

November 15, 1998|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

If Elizabeth C. "Nancy" Smith -- longtime owner of the 300-acre Smith farm, the "crown jewel" of Columbia -- had lived to see the intruders filing yesterday past the orange "KEEP OUT" signs posted prominently around her Howard County property, she would have had strict orders for her caretaker.

"She would tell me to get my shotgun and make all these people leave," said James Douglas, 32, who came to east Columbia six years ago to look after the expansive property and its ailing owner until her death last year at 82.

Not for a long time have there been so many guests, invited or otherwise, on the grounds of what for decades has been the most private place in James W. Rouse's 31-year-old planned community.

For two hours yesterday morning, Smith's farm and the 19th-century mansion in which she lived in mystery became a kind of public attraction as about 30 county officials and community leaders surveyed what is to become a large regional park.

Formally known as Blandair, it is the last undeveloped tract in Rouse's 87,000-resident planned community.

Before the county purchased the farm for nearly $11 million this year, its fate had been in question because Smith died without a will. Douglas said Smith was days from signing a will when she suffered a stroke and heart failure in February 1997.

Accompanying yesterday's visitors around the run-down property -- which, in addition to the 14-room brick mansion dating to the 1840s, includes a tenant house, a stone house, a seed mill and a barn -- Douglas said Smith wanted Blandair to be preserved as a working farm, a kind of agricultural museum complete with organic gardens.

Douglas, the groundskeeper, said Smith wondered aloud once how many Columbians had seen a "real, live cow."

Smith's vision isn't exactly what officialdom has in mind. The farm will be transformed over the next four to five years into a huge "mixed-use" park with soccer fields and concession stands.

According to preliminary Recreation and Parks Department design plans, the land south of Route 175 would be designated (( for "active" use. It would include softball and soccer fields; basketball and tennis courts; roller-hockey arenas, playgrounds and pavilions; volleyball and horseshoe pits; restrooms; and a concession stand. It could also have as many as 550 parking spaces.

The area north of Route 175 would be designated primarily for "passive" use, including nature trails, meadows, picnic areas and possibly a nature center.

The parcel looks nothing like the park it would become. The farmland, which yielded corn not too many years ago, has become overgrown, and the mansion, which might be turned into a bed-and-breakfast after an estimated $2 million renovation, has yet to be cleared of Smith's things.

Smith, who never recovered fully from a riding injury she suffered at 16 or a broken leg later in life, remains a tangible presence: Worn-out overcoats hang in the closets downstairs, and a wooden cane has been left in the kitchen.

Upstairs, amid an assortment of magazines dating to 1942, there's a copy of "High School Course in Latin Composition" with "Nancy Smith" written neatly in cursive at the front.

Smith was fiercely protective of the farm, a gift from her father. She refused to sell it to the Rouse Co. when surveyors came looking for land in the 1960s. Later, when the state unveiled plans to build Route 175 through the middle of her property, she again resisted, refusing to cash a $150,000 compensation check.

Design details of the park have prompted some residents in the neighboring villages of Oakland Mills, Owen Brown and Long Reach to express concerns over increased traffic.

Douglas, the caretaker, said he knows what his former boss would do if she knew about the soccer fields: "She'd roll over right now in her grave."

Pub Date: 11/15/98

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