Appeal filed to fight plans for county park

Action could delay for months Howard's vision for Smith farm

Columbia

July 26, 2000|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

In a move that could mothball for many months the county's plans for a grand regional park in Columbia, opponents of the project have decided to appeal a judge's decision allowing the county to develop a 300-acre parcel known as the Blandair estate.

The notice of appeal was filed in Howard County Circuit Court on behalf of a group run by Byron C. Hall, an Ohio physics professor determined to preserve the estate according to what he says are the wishes of its former owner, Elizabeth C. "Nancy" Smith, who died in 1997 without leaving a will.

This latest twist in a more than two-year dispute over the property, the only remaining rural land in Columbia, means the fight could continue many more months as it snakes its way through the backlogged appeals courts; just to transfer the case from the county Circuit Court will take about 60 days.

Gary J. Arthur, director of the county's Department of Recreation and Parks, said he is expecting to wait up to a year for a resolution. "We'll just have to go back into our wait-and-see mode," he said.

The longer the wait, though, the more the property deteriorates. Smith's estate was once a farm, and includes 11 buildings in varying stages of disrepair, and fields besieged by weeds. His workers have put a canvas roof on the old manor house, hoping to protect the interior from weather damage.

Although Arthur is far from giving up on the project, he does not expect Hall to do so, either. "I've only met Mr. Hall once," he said yesterday. "He seemed to be the type of gentleman who was going to follow through."

Indeed, Hall said yesterday from his office in Dayton that he would push the case as far as the bench, and his finances, would allow. He declined to say how much his legal fees had come to, but indicated he did not have unlimited funds.

Although Hall would not discuss in detail the arguments his lawyer plans to present, he said the briefs would hew closely to previous rulings.

"Basically, to get heard and to win an appeal you need to show that the judge made mistakes in some way," he said. "We have disagreements with the way that the judge applied the law."

Hall plans to challenge two rulings; the first, from 1998, found that his nonprofit organization formed three months after Smith's death, the Blandair Foundation, had no right to Smith's estate.

Because Smith had no immediate family and left no will, the estate went to her father's surviving heirs, who sold the farm to the county for $11 million.

The second ruling Hall will dispute came from Howard County Circuit Judge Raymond J. Kane Jr., who threw out Hall's lawsuit contending that Smith's orally expressed wishes for her property could legally stand in place of a written will.

County officials greeted Kane's ruling with relief and excitement last month. They cleared out the decrepit mansion, and the 30-member planning committee for the park was poised to map out the nature trails, baseball diamonds, soccer fields and parking lots they had envisioned.

While there might appear to be common ground between those who want a regional park and those who want a working farm, "the visions are quite drastically different," Hall said. For example, where Arthur sees a soccer field, Hall sees habitat from which deer and fox were chased.

In April, the Blandair Foundation began soliciting support locally in an effort to bolster its legal budget. Hall said the group had sent out literature to 400 addresses, and that the response had been encouraging.

The group, which consists of six board members including Hall, also has made a brochure explaining its mission: to restore the estate's grounds and buildings into a working organic farm open to the public. It even has created a "Blandair Research Center for the Management of Suburban/Urban Open Space" and a "Center for the History of Blandair."

Hall's tenacity is personal, at least in part. He met Smith 30 years ago when he was living in Maryland and chairing a conservative group called Young Americans for Freedom. The two began corresponding about urban renewal and became friends, he said yesterday.

"She did not have many close friends, and I was one of them," Hall said. "And she trusted me and trusted that I would do anything that I could do to preserve the farm. I made a commitment, so I'm going to do everything I can to keep it."

Although Hall shows every sign of perseverance, county officials say they are confident the case will be resolved in their favor.

"I'm disappointed but I'm not surprised," County Executive James N. Robey said of Hall's intention to appeal. "It certainly will delay things. But I read Judge Kane's decision. He put a lot of work into it, and I feel good about it."

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