Judge gives Howard OK to buy farm

County plans ball fields, park on Columbia site

June 27, 2000|By Del Quentin Wilber and Larry Carson | Del Quentin Wilber and Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

In a major victory for Howard County officials, a state judge has paved the way for them to purchase a 300-acre farm in the heart of Columbia and turn it into a regional park.

Howard County Circuit Judge Raymond J. Kane Jr. threw out a lawsuit Friday that has delayed the county from developing Blandair Farm for almost two years.

"We're ecstatic," said Gary Arthur, Howard County director of recreation and parks.

The county bought the land in November 1998 from heirs of Elizabeth C. "Nancy" Smith, but the purchase was contingent on the resolution of a lawsuit filed earlier by an Ohio physics teacher, one of Smith's longtime friends.

That friend, Byron C. Hall, filed the suit to preserve the land and prevent the sale. Hall could not be reached for comment yesterday. His attorney said he was unaware of the decision and declined to comment.

Hall has 30 days to appeal, an action that could delay the farm's purchase for several more months at least.

"I'll be keeping my fingers crossed for the next 30 days, hoping that this delay has finally come to an end," said County Executive James N. Robey.

If Hall declines to appeal, a 30-member planning committee will begin work on the project, which could include baseball diamonds, soccer fields, nature trails and parking lots, officials said.

Columbia residents have long complained that there are not enough soccer and baseball fields for their children, and many are eagerly anticipating the development of the park.

Jim Carlan, president of the Soccer Association of Columbia, said his group is even willing to help finance the construction of fields.

"We're definitely interested," Carlan said.

Smith died in February 1997 without a will, and the farm, located off Route 175, passed under terms of her father's will to surviving heirs. Hall filed a lawsuit in June 1998 to prevent that transfer, even as county officials were negotiating with the heirs to purchase the land. Two months later, the heirs agreed to sell the farm, known as the "Jewel of Columbia," to the county for $11 million.

Without a signed will, Hall and his lawyer had a tough legal battle to wage because almost all land transfers must be made in writing, and oral contracts carry a heavy legal burden.

Hall said Smith was planning to transfer the land to a nonprofit group but died before she could complete her plans in writing. Hall argued in his lawsuit that Smith essentially made a contract with him to create the group and preserve Blandair.

In June 1997, Hall formed the nonprofit group. He said he has an unsigned will and other legal papers that put the farm into a trust. He says those documents, drawn up shortly before Smith died, envisioned a farm dedicated to organic community gardening, a horse retirement facility, walking and riding trails and a wildlife refuge.

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