Howard dreams big at Blandair

300-acre site sparks `Central Park' talk

June 28, 2000|By Del Quentin Wilber and Liz Atwood | Del Quentin Wilber and Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Receipts for 1950s stock purchases, newspaper clippings from the 1930s, chipped china and an antique piano all rest like ghosts among chunks of plaster and other detritus accumulated over the past 60 years in the decaying mansion.

But Gary J. Arthur wasn't complaining yesterday about spending thousands of dollars on trash removal. In fact, Arthur, director of Howard County's Department of Recreation and Parks, was quite happy.

"This is Howard County's stuff," he said, his hands sweeping across a table covered in rotting books and other debris, during a rare look inside the mansion that has been a mystery in Howard County for years.

On Monday, Arthur learned that a state judge had essentially thrown out a lawsuit that was seeking to block the county's purchase of the mansion and surrounding 300-acre farm, known as Blandair.

Despite the decay and fields overrun with weeds, county officials have grandiose plans for Blandair's buildings and land.

"This could be Howard County's Central Park," Arthur said.

It was all once owned by Elizabeth C. "Nancy" Smith, a recluse known for her stubborn desire to preserve the land in the heart of Columbia. But Smith never put her desires in writing and died without a signed will in February 1997.

Her cousins and only heirs sold the property to the county in November 1998 for $11 million, contingent on the outcome of a lawsuit filed a few months earlier by Smith's friend, Byron Hall.

He argued in the lawsuit that Smith wanted to preserve the land and made an oral contract with him to do so. But the judge disagreed, saying Hall didn't produce enough evidence to support his case.

Hall, an Ohio physics teacher, has 30 days to appeal the ruling. Hecould not be reached for comment yesterday.

Arthur and other officials think Hall, who has spent thousands of dollars on the suit, will appeal the decision, but they still feel a step closer to building the regional park.

The property, split by Route 175, is an ideal site, officials said. The southern portion of 100 acres is mostly flat and could accommodate tennis courts and an outdoor roller rink. Officials also want to build baseball and soccer fields to address a shortage that parents have been complaining about for years.

The northern side, which has 11 buildings including the mansion, would have winding nature trails, historical exhibits and possibly a fountain and playgrounds, Arthur said.

He said it could be a decade before the park is completed, but he was thinking about nothing but possibilities yesterday.

The mansion is full of antiques, including a piano that was specially made for the home, and papers that date to at least 1906. Smith's father, an architect and real estate agent, apparently practiced engineering: covered in dust were several notebooks, one of which read: "Problem No. IV. Jan. 25, 1906. Henry E. Smith." Inside, Smith wrote neatly in pen, spelling out equations on designing a turbine water wheel.

Fraying couches remain. An old Polaroid, musty letters, cracked picture frames, a small green tennis shoe missing its toe. They all appear abandoned, covered in layers of cobwebs and dust.

It will cost about $1 million to refurbish the mansion, said Arthur, who would like to turn it into an historical exhibit. He would love to show off antique farm equipment in a barn, maybe even grow some crops as they did in the old days.

It will cost $13 million to $18 million to develop the park, depending on its final plans, Arthur said, and even if Hall doesn't appeal the decision, it will take at least eight years to complete. At the moment, officials only have money to plan the project.

But winning the suit is only a small part of Arthur's battle. County recreation officials have suffered several defeats recently during the final stages of planning other county parks because they ran into neighborhood opposition.

In several cases, they hired expensive consultants to plan the facilities, only to return to the drawing board when neighbors voiced concerns in large numbers. But not this time, Arthur says.

He plans to update a 30-member committee, formed after the purchase in 1998 andgive it the department's "conceptual" plan. Members will essentially design the project with the help of an outside consultant.

The park could have lighted fields, Arthur said, and would need hundreds of parking spaces and roads to accommodate the traffic - issues that have traditionally rallied neighborhood opposition to park projects.

Powerful opponents are lining up.

"I don't think it should be a regional park," said County Councilman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat.

Gray said he especially is concerned about plans for ball fields amid the residential neighborhoods on the southern side of the park.

Arthur was thinking about that opposition yesterday as he drove away from the mansion, under a verdant canopy of trees.

"Lots and lots of people want a lot of different things," Arthur said. "That process will be interesting to go through."

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