State buys 364 acres of a Carroll County farm for park system

$933,000 purchase pleases neighbors of land near Gaither

July 16, 1999|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Harold and Esther Mercer of Woodbine feel as if they won the lottery. They just sold their Carroll County farm to Maryland for nearly $1 million, one of the state's largest land purchases in recent memory.

State officials say the purchase of the 364 acres near the Carroll County-Howard County line was a bargain. The land will become part of the Patapsco Valley State Park system. The Mercers' land runs from near Route 97 east to Gaither in southern Carroll County.

"This marks the largest piece of property that the state would own along the south branch of the Patapsco," said John Surrick, a spokesman for the state Department of Natural Resources. "With its purchase, we are protecting the watershed from development, increasing water quality protection and improving wildlife habitat."

The farm will not become burgeoning Carroll's newest housing subdivision or a business venture that would have added 350-foot tall radio towers to the skyline -- proposals that generated vehement opposition from neighbors. Instead, it will be parkland.

Its lush woodlands will be preserved; the waters of the Patapsco River will thrive; and wildlife can exist undisturbed by development.

The Mercers, who would not give their ages, are hoping they can finally retire. For nearly five years, since the couple gave up farming, their land has felt more like an anchor than their ticket to retirement, Harold Mercer said.

"This is something we are glad to see come about," he said. "It is better than fighting with the county commissioners to get zoning for houses."

"Or fighting with courts about radio towers," said his wife.

The state has been buying small properties along the river, but "it is almost unheard of to get a property this large," said John Norbeck, regional manager for the state forest and park service.

At $933,000, he considers the purchase "a real coup for us. If you calculate the price per acre, we got a good deal." The state paid $2,563 an acre.

Surrick said the purchase was funded through Program Open Space, to which developers of homes pay fees.

It is about a quarter-mile from the Hugg Thomas Wildlife Management Area in the Patapsco park. The parcel includes almost a mile of waterfront on the south branch of the Patapsco River, and the Piney Branch feeder stream runs through it.

"In terms of the Patapsco, we have worked for many years to protect its quality," Surrick said. "This is a continuation of those efforts and extends the protections to its tributaries."

The farm on Hoods Mill Road has been home and livelihood to the Mercers for most of their lives. It was to finance their retirement.

But when they sold their farm equipment and put the land on the market more than five years ago, they had few takers and no offers that would have continued the farming operation.

"People here just don't understand farming," Mr. Mercer said. "They just want to look at plowed fields. But, what is a farmer to do with his ground when nobody wants it? It becomes an anchor around your neck."

Radio station WCBM-AM made the only offer and presented a plan to build six towers on the farm. Neighbors organized opposition. The lengthy, costly court battle ended last winter, in favor of the opponents. It was then that the state made its offer.

"Once the courts ruled against the Mercers, the state made it known that this was an important piece for the state to preserve," said Norbeck.

The Mercers lease about 200 acres to a crop farmer, and for the time being that land will remain in agriculture, said Surrick.

"This is not going to be developed in the way some people envision a park," said Norbeck. "We want to keep it in its natural state. About the only thing we may add is forest buffers near the shoreline."

"I would think the neighbors will love this," said Mrs. Mercer.

If Kurt Harden is any indication, she is correct. The Gaither Road resident whose property adjoins the farm said, "I am doing cartwheels and getting ready to pour champagne."

Harden, whose family has lived near the Mercers for more than 50 years, had organized a petition drive four years ago in an effort to defeat the radio towers.

"Making this farm part of the state park system is the greatest thing that could ever happen," said Harden. "It will be one of the best parks in Carroll County. I want to see my kids playing there like I did when I was a kid."

The farm is home to beaver, and wild turkey and deer. The state will plant several acres with cover crops to attract pheasant and other fowl.

The Mercers will continue to reside in their 200-year-old home and keep about 4 acres for themselves at the west end of the property.

Although neighbors vehemently opposed the tower proposal, many consider themselves friends to the Mercers.

"I hope more than anything the sale will help Mr. Mercer, too," said Harden. "The tower issue was just unacceptable to neighbors. It was nothing personal directed to the Mercers. If we want to have parks, people just have to start practicing good land management."

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