Howard puts off planning for park

Lawsuit could nullify Smith land purchase for trails, ball fields

April 05, 1999|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Howard County officials have put on hold their plans to turn the former Smith farm into a regional park because of a lawsuit that could void their costly purchase of the coveted 300-acre property in the middle of Columbia.

The committee charged with developing a master plan for the property, which is slated to become a mixed-use park with soccer fields and nature trails, has not met since October.

After canceling a meeting in January, Recreation and Parks Department Director Gary J. Arthur said no planning sessions would be held until the litigation is resolved -- which is expected to take months.

"As long as there's a cloud menacing the entire situation, there is the threat that something else could happen, and it might not come to fruition, the county owning the property," Arthur explained.

The county and state jointly paid nearly $11 million last year for the land, the last large, undeveloped tract in James W. Rouse's planned community.

Preservationists and recreation and park advocates have sought to keep the land from being developed, and it took months to negotiate a deal with relatives of the late Elizabeth C. "Nancy" Smith, the longtime owner.

Initially, the lawsuit, filed by a private foundation in Howard Circuit Court in June, was not considered a major obstacle. Many were surprised when it wasn't dismissed at a hearing in December.

The lawsuit claims that Smith intended to preserve the farm as open space, not to sell it to developers or the county -- or anyone.

Douglas G. Worrall, the Baltimore lawyer representing the plaintiffs, the Elizabeth C. Smith Foundation and foundation trustee Byron C. Hall Jr., said Smith had drawn up and approved a will to that effect just a few days before becoming seriously ill, and died before she could sign it.

No development

"Everybody knows what she wanted, everybody knows the history," Worrall said. "She was certainly well-known in the county. There was no one who didn't understand that she was a lady of very definite opinion, and her opinion did not include developing that land or letting it be used for ball fields or an active park."

The case, which will determine whether the county keeps the land, was to be heard April 13, but Circuit Judge James B. Dudley removed it from the docket after the plaintiffs filed a motion to consolidate it with a countercomplaint filed by the heirs of Smith's estate.

The trial date in the heirs' case, which claims that Smith neither created nor authorized the creation of a foundation in her name, is Aug. 31.

According to the county's preliminary design plans, the section south of Route 175 would have space for softball, soccer, basketball, tennis and other sports. It would include pavilions, playgrounds, restrooms and a concession stand.

The section north of the road would have mainly trails, meadows and picnic areas.

The county's proposed capital budget for the coming fiscal year includes $700,000 for planning at Blandair, as the property is called, but no work will be done until the lawsuit is resolved.

Hands are tied

"Our hands are a little bit tied," said Arthur, who toured the farm and its 19th-century brick mansion with state and local officials in November. "It's not really expedient for us to go ahead and start planning the property."

Howard County was added in February as a defendant in the lawsuit. The funds used to purchase the property are being held in escrow.

"If I lose [the case], then the sellers get the money," said plaintiffs' lawyer Worrall. "If I win, Howard County gets the money back, the property goes back to the sellers, and they've got to deliver the property to the foundation."

Pub Date: 4/05/99

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