Battle over farm born of friendship

Land: An Ohio teacher is striving to preserve Blandair farm in Howard County, saying that's what owner Elizabeth C. Smith would have wanted.

October 25, 1999|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

One major obstacle stands in the way of a multimillion-dollar plan to transform 300 acres in the heart of Columbia into a regional park: an Ohio physics teacher who speaks softly and wears a pocket protector.

Byron C. Hall, 62, has become the unlikely standard-bearer for opposition to a state- and county-endorsed plan to build soccer fields and nature trails on the Blandair farm along Route 175.

Hall, who says he has spent thousands of dollars and an estimated 2,500 hours of his time, has delayed the project by suing to preserve the land once owned by the reclusive Elizabeth C. "Nancy" Smith. He claims that Smith intended to give the land to a foundation for preservation, but died in 1997 before she signed a will and trust.

That lawsuit has frustrated county officials and community leaders eager for more parkland. Although the county bought the rolling fields and woods from Smith's heirs for $11 million in August 1998, development plans are on hold.

Few understand why Hall, who lives hundreds of miles from Columbia, has triggered the lawsuit. Hall admits that his involvement needs "a good bit of explaining." But others who know him say they are pleased by his efforts.

"Without Byron Hall, the county would have the property," says Ronald L. Ledford, who lives near the farm and is involved in the preservation campaign. "There would be lights all over the place."

Hall, who speaks in slow and measured tones, says his interest in Blandair "has to do with my friendship with Elizabeth Smith. We were friends for a good many years."

"We were both conservative. We both loved animals. We both loved the land. We were both close intellectually and spiritually. I care about what Ms. Smith wanted to do," Hall says.

The stage for the legal battle was set in 1968, when Smith read an essay by Hall in the Constructive Conservative, the newsletter for Maryland Young Americans for Freedom. Hall led that conservative group for 1 1/2 years in the late 1960s.

"I was suggesting that Columbia might be a good model for urban redevelopment," Hall says, recalling that essay. But Smith disagreed and wrote to Hall, who was teaching at then-Towson State University.

"She said I needed to look more closely at the situation," Hall says, "and she'd be happy to get me started."

That letter began a 30-year friendship. Hall visited Smith for the first time on a foggy winter day in 1969, when she was in her 50s. Hall was 31. She gave him a ride in her Volkswagen Beetle. He became an admirer of hers and visited the farm often.

Wide-ranging talks

Hall recalls many conversations with Smith in her garden as they sipped iced tea and lemonade. The talks covered many topics, including conservative politics, columns written by C. P. Ives in The Sun and even a book about the federal reserve system.

As Smith grew older, she had trouble sitting down because of arthritis, so the talks moved to the back porch, where she and Hall stood and spoke.

Smith spent almost 60 years on Blandair farm. Over time, officials with Columbia's developer, Rouse Co., and the state tried to purchase the farm or parts of it. Hall met Smith as Columbia was budding and she was retreating further into a reclusive life in the farm's 19th-century mansion.

When Hall decided he needed to pursue his doctorate to move ahead in physics and get a tenured professorship at a college, he moved away. Since then, he has alternated between pursuing the degree and holding teaching jobs at high schools, colleges and universities.

In 1991, he began work at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, where he teaches College Physics I, Allied Health Math and Intermediate Algebra.

Unsigned documents

Hall arrives for an interview in checkered pants and an open-necked blue shirt with a pocket protector in place. Every word he speaks seems measured, and he shrugs off questions about himself.

He prefers that the conversation focus on Blandair's preservation. Hall has the unsigned will and papers that put the farm in a trust -- the focus of his legal battle -- but he will show a reporter only parts of the documents.

Hall says the will and trust, drawn up shortly before Smith died, envision a farm dedicated to organic community gardening, a horse retirement facility, walking and riding trails, a wildlife refuge, a habitat to rehabilitate animals, and an area to board horses for county police, if the department created a mounted unit. He also says the foundation would try to work out an arrangement to allow the Irvine Natural Science Center in Stevenson to use the farm.

He's very proud of the Blandair Foundation, formerly the Elizabeth C. Smith Foundation, which he established after she died at age 82. The foundation has spent nearly $20,000 in its fight to preserve the property, according to its federal tax returns. Most of the money, $16,199, is a loan from board members, according to the tax forms.

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