Judge gives Howard go-ahead to buy farm

Suit over 300-acre site in Columbia thrown out

county plans ball fields

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 not enough soccer and baseball fields are available 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 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.

In his lawsuit, Hall stated that he prepared descriptions of the foundation, suggested attorneys as well as foundation names and programs - all consistent with someone performing acts done on reliance of a promise or oral contract, Kane said in his 18-page ruling.

But Hall also encouraged Smith to finalize her desires in "legal form," Kane wrote, and that is "inconsistent with the existence of an enforceable promise."

Kane then ruled that Hall's acts do not provide "unequivocal evidence" that he performed part of a contract and that his other acts are explainable for other reasons.

Hall did not meet the legal burden necessary to continue with the suit, Kane ruled.

Louis P. Ruzzi, a senior assistant county solicitor, was elated at the ruling, saying "it's a major victory for the county to have a ruling in its favor without a trial," which was scheduled for November.

Smith was known for her distrust of county government and fought vigorously to protect her land from encroachment by Columbia. County attorneys and the heirs argued that although Smith lived on the farm for decades, her wishes were meaningless. Under an arrangement with her father, Henry E. Smith, who died in 1936, Smith lived on Blandair and could have controlled its fate if she had signed a will.

Because she didn't, the farm goes to her father's remaining heirs, her cousins Carolyn L. Smith of Baltimore and Tabi L. Williamson of California. Smith and Williams could not be reached for comment.Their attorney, R. Wayne Pierce, said he learned of the decision yesterday but declined to comment, noting the privacy of his clients.

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