Manor's legacy on the line

Doughoregan: A preservation easement protecting Charles Carroll's Howard County country house is set to expire in 2007.

April 15, 2001|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

Through three centuries, Doughoregan Manor has stood watch over its domain, a sprawling estate so mysterious that some Howard County neighbors don't know it exists - and so valuable that developers can't stop thinking about it.

Now, its clock is ticking down.

About 275 years old, with 20 rooms, a private chapel and a long, tree-lined drive, the country home of founding father Charles Carroll is Maryland's answer to Mount Vernon and Monticello. And it has something neither of those landmarks can claim - it is the only home of a Declaration of Independence signer still in family hands.

As one family member put it a few years ago, "Only God, the Indians and the Carrolls have owned this land."

That could change, though.

In 2007, a 30-year historical preservation easement on the manor and the land surrounding it will expire. This raises a momentous prospect: The owners could sell about 860 acres closest to the manor for development.

"It's the single most important property or tract of land in the central part of Maryland," said John Bernstein, executive director of the Maryland Environmental Trust. "It's an historic property that's been in the same hands for hundreds of years, with a thousand acres of land around it - and it's unfortunately in one of the hottest development areas in the state."

High stakes for county

For Howard County, the stakes in the family's decision are huge. For years, the estate has been the first line of defense for the county's rural west, a holdout against the march of subdivisions.

But with zoning changes, the land could support as many as 2,000 homes - adding thousands of cars and schoolchildren to one of the county's most congested areas.

Though no one fears that the manor house, a national landmark, is at risk of destruction, the sale of surrounding land could deprive the estate of what many consider its greatest asset: its relative isolation from the sprawl of modern-day Maryland. The few who have visited the manor say it's so peaceful, it might just be 1776 again.

"It can't sit on 50 acres or 100 acres. It needs every acre it's got to be what it is," said Ann Jones of Ellicott City, who grew up on a farm west of the manor. "That's what's so special about it."

Fueling the suspense over the estate's fate is the silence of the manor's owners, Philip A. Carroll, 76, and his children, Philip D. Carroll, 39, and Camilla Carroll, 41. They have offered few clues about their plans for the property and have greatly restricted access to the manor to ward off gawkers.

In the 1980s, the senior Philip Carroll, who lives at the manor, won county approval to close Manor Lane, a public road through the estate. For years, he has rented outbuildings to local police officers to further discourage trespassers.

And in the past decade, he ended the age-old traditions of letting a local parish hold Mass at the manor chapel and inviting local foxhunters for a "blessing of the hounds" on Thanksgiving Day.

None of the manor's owners would consent to an interview. But in written responses to an interview request, Philip A. Carroll and his daughter, who lives in a separate manor building, said they have no plans to develop the land. Camilla Carroll wrote that she and her brother "hope we and our descendants will be able to live in peace and privacy in the house for many years to come" and that "the house and its surrounding lands will remain manageable."

But sources close to county government say Philip A. Carroll and his son have asked in recent years about development options.

For preservationists, the family's desire for privacy poses a challenge. Wary of alienating the Carrolls with an aggressive pitch for land conservation, they are quick to praise the family's upkeep of the manor and to stress that it is, in the end, up to the Carrolls to decide the manor's fate.

Still, they say it's never too early to build the case for preservation, with developers eyeing the land.

"I hope people look at this now, because it's much easier to come up with a solution now than at the point when someone is planning to develop," said William Bolger, who oversees area landmarks for the National Park Service. "But we don't want to do something to alarm [the Carrolls]. In a private property case, it's very delicate."

Striking contrast

The manor's position is a powerful reminder of how far Maryland has come since the days of Charles Carroll, the only Roman Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the thought that the manor house might one day be crowded by neighbors was laughable: The estate encompassed more than 10,000 acres, an area so large it had its own post office. Anyone who tees off at Hobbits Glen or Turf Valley, or lives in most areas of western Columbia, or hunts deer at the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area is on land the Carrolls once owned.

"All of where we are was once Doughoregan Manor," said Donna Mennito, a former director of Howard's farmland preservation program. "This was all theirs."

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