State buys 364 acres of Carroll farm

$933,000 deal will make land part of park system

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 and 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, he said.

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

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

For years, 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, fees paid by developers of new homes.

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 supposed 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.

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