Court clears way to use farm as park

Plan, fought over for 3 years, includes athletic fields

`Unbelievable' potential

But group opposing county will seek to manage Blandair

October 16, 2001|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

The long court battle over Blandair, a 300-acre island of greenery in the heart of Columbia, is finally over.

Maryland's Court of Appeals has declined to review the case, which for more than three years has pitted Howard County against Blandair Foundation, a group fighting to prevent officials from turning the estate into a regional park with recreational facilities such as soccer fields.

Blandair's reclusive owner, Elizabeth C. "Nancy" Smith, was resolutely against development - James W. Rouse had to build Columbia around her farm. But she died in 1997 at age 82 without signing a will to specify how the land was to be used. The next year, her relatives agreed to sell Blandair to Howard County for $11 million, touching off the legal scuffle.

FOR THE RECORD - An article about Columbia's Blandair estate that appeared in Tuesday's Maryland section incorrectly reported that the farm's longtime owner, Elizabeth C. "Nancy" Smith, died of a heart attack. She suffered a stroke. Also, her friend Byron C. Hall Jr. clarified why she took a post office box in Ellicott City instead of getting her mail delivered in Columbia: After Route 175 was built through her property, he said, Smith lost direct access to her mailbox. The Sun regrets the error.

Now, the land that for years has been guarded against trespassers will be opened to the public.

"The potential is just unbelievable," said Columbia resident Bob Moon, who sits on a 23-member committee that will plan the park. "It's just great to know the conflict's over and we can go about our work to make something good."

Byron C. Hall Jr., chairman of Blandair Foundation, said he was disappointed by the court's decision, which his attorney received by mail during the weekend. But Hall hopes to win by negotiation.

The foundation will present to the county by the end of the year a proposal to manage the farm as a "research and demonstration area for managing open space in an urbanized area," he said.

"There would be something for people to see and something for people to use," said Hall, a retired physics professor in Ohio who befriended Smith more than 30 years ago. "We're just in the process of putting our ideas together."

Hall wants low-impact activities such as a wildlife refuge and organic farming, with plots for the community. He argues that athletic fields would be a "short-term" vision for the land because no one knows how many people will want to use them in a few decades. As an example, he said, the county's youth population could significantly decrease.

"It depends on the demographics of the particular moment," Hall said. "When you have open space being used to provide habitat for wildlife in balance and knowledge for the human race, that's a really long-term idea for the property."

Hall said other nonprofit groups manage county property, including the Ellicott City B&O Railroad Station Museum and Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park.

Gary J. Arthur, county recreation and parks director, said any proposal would have to be approved by County Executive James N. Robey, who was not available for comment. Arthur said Blandair cannot be compared to the railroad station museum or the ruins of a 19th-century girls school.

"Yes, we do have people who manage facilities for us, but not large parks," he said. "There's certain criteria [for what] you have to offer in parks that are readily available to the public, and I'm not sure a private organization can offer all those types of things."

Columbia, with more than 3,000 acres of open space, has no regional parks, Arthur said, adding, "There's a lot of public money that went into this acquisition."

County officials intend to restore Blandair's 19th-century manor house and its outbuildings, which are decaying as nature takes its toll.

Columbia resident Ann Harrison Ryder, a past president of the Howard County Historical Society, is delighted that the work can begin.

Ryder hopes the house will offer people a peek into Smith's life. Her relatives left many of her books and magazines in the manor.

"It's just a shame that it's been held up this long, but all good things in time," Ryder said.

During the legal battle, Hall argued that Smith had outlined her vision for the property in a will that put the land into a trust. She suffered a fatal heart attack before she could sign the document, he said, and he contended that their discussions constituted an oral contract.

Neither the Circuit Court nor the state Court of Special Appeals saw it his way.

"It was well known to everyone that Ms. Smith wanted to preserve Blandair without changing its character," Judge Charles E. Moylan Jr. wrote in the Court of Special Appeals opinion, which was released in July.

"It was also well known that Ms. Smith had been provided with countless opportunities to see to it that the character of Blandair was preserved upon her death. Ms. Smith, however, availed herself of none of those opportunities."

Smith clearly disapproved of Columbia. Even after the town surrounded her, she picked up her mail from a post office box in Ellicott City, apparently because she refused to take a Columbia address.

Moon, an architect who helped plan downtown Columbia for Rouse Co., thinks Smith did the community a favor by refusing to sell her land. It probably would have been the setting for more houses had it been developed in the 1970s, he said. Instead, it will remain open space.

"I think the park idea would be one of the finest tributes that could be done in her honor," he said.

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