Delaware track owner buys Merryland farm

Rickman to restore site to train his racehorses

June 12, 1999|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

William M. Rickman Sr., a wealthy Montgomery County developer and chairman of a Delaware horse track bought the Merryland horse farm from Baltimore County yesterday at public auction for $1.075 million.

Rickman said he plans to spend $500,000 to $700,000 to restore the once-renowned breeding and training farm and use it to board and train his 100 horses.

"It's got a good little track," said Rickman, who lives in Potomac.

Residents of Long Green Valley had tried to stop Baltimore County from selling the 160-acre farm, which was donated in 1993 by New York businessman Seymour Cohn, arguing that the county had a moral obligation to keep Merryland as parkland.

County officials concluded this year that Merryland didn't meet the county's park needs and decided to sell the land and use the proceeds to preserve farmland in the area.

"We decided to auction the farm and get the best price for it. It will be maintained as a working farm. There will be no loss of farmland," said Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger.

The development rights on Merryland will be donated to the Maryland Environmental Trust and the Long Green Valley Conservancy so that the farm cannot be developed.

Yesterday, while long-legged thoroughbreds exercised on Merryland's track, about two dozen community activists and neighbors gathered at the auction to see who would buy the prized farm.

Rickman opened the bidding at $750,000 and had little competition. Bidding stopped when Rickman offered $1.025 million. County officials refused that price because it was below the $1.075 million appraised value of the farm. After consultations, Rickman agreed to raise his offer to match the appraised price.

"I think it's a sad day," said Charlotte Pine, president of the Long Green Valley Association, who unsuccessfully petitioned Baltimore County Circuit Court this week to stop the sale.

In addition to 160 acres of land, the purchase includes several houses and barns and a fenced oval track.

Bold American, a retired racehorse owned by the county and living at the farm, was not included in the deal. The county is negotiating to sell the horse separately, said Robert Barrett, an assistant to the county executive.

Merryland, founded in 1915, was one of the county's premier thoroughbred breeding and training farms in its heyday, when it was owned by horse trainer Danny Shea. Cohn purchased the property in 1987 and donated it to the county in 1993 in exchange for a $4 million tax break.

In the past few years, the farm has languished. Fences need painting, and barns need repair.

Although a number of community leaders said they still believe the county was wrong to sell the land, other neighbors and the farm's managers were happy the farm will go to a person with the money and enthusiasm to return Merryland farm to its glory.

"He values this farm. He's going to make it what it was," said Carole Rigione, who manages the farm with her husband, John.

Betty Shea Miller, who once owned Merryland and lives across the road from it, said she, too, is happy that Rickman was the purchaser. "Mr. Rickman is the man who will get it back to where it was," she said.

Rickman owns several farms and has raced horses in Maryland for years. A native of North Carolina, he came to the Washington suburbs more than 40 years ago and made his fortune in development.

He and his son, William Rickman Jr., who own Delaware Park racetrack, have been trying to open a horse racing track in Western Maryland and are scouting sites there.

Rickman said he was aware of community opposition to Merryland's sale and said he would be open to holding public events at Merryland from time to time.

"I'm easy to get along with," said Rickman.

Rickman said he would keep the Rigiones on as tenants, but the fate of another couple who live on the land is less certain.

Nicholaus and Anna Zurkan, who have lived on Merryland since 1956 and were promised by one of the farm's previous owners that they could stay there the rest of their lives, will probably have to find somewhere else to live.

They have been living rent-free on the property since it was taken over by the county, but Rickman said he probably will need their house for farm workers. "I'm not promising them anything," he said.

Anna Zurkan said she has no idea where she and her husband will go. "We came to America with $2," said Zurkan, who fled Poland during World War II. "So many times in our lives we've been in a worse spot. But God's always been good to us."

Sun staff writer Dan Thanh Dang contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 6/12/99

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