Battling for pieces of Blandair Farm

Estate: Sports teams, preservationists, environmentalists and many other groups want a piece of the 300-acre site in Columbia.

November 25, 2001|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Howard County is finding that when you purchase one of the last swaths of open land in Columbia - a 300-acre clean slate - you're throwing yourself into the center of the interest-group storm.

Dozens of county sports teams, desperate for more playing fields, want space on the coveted estate known as Blandair Farm. Preservationists want to restore the impressive but deteriorating brick mansion and outbuildings, some of which are more than 200 years old. Environmentalists want to plant more trees. Garden clubs want to tend gardens. The Howard County Antique Farm Machinery Club wants to open a farm heritage museum.

Before her death in 1997, Blandair owner Elizabeth C. "Nancy" Smith warily guarded her land against all interests, occasionally with a shotgun. But now that the county owns the land and intends to turn it into a regional park, groups representing thousands of people across the county see their chance to mold a parcel that sits tantalizingly in the most populated village of Columbia, in one of the fastest-developing counties in the state.

It's a rare opportunity indeed.

"In most urban and suburban communities, you don't find parcels of 300 acres," said Susan Clark, a regional public affairs manager with the San Francisco-based Trust for Public Land.

Twenty-three county residents appointed to the Blandair Planning Committee will begin hammering out a vision for the land this week, a process that could take at least a year. But some groups aren't waiting. They're lobbying.

"I already called Gary Arthur," said lacrosse organizer Warren A. Michael, referring to the man thrust into the role of referee - the county's recreation and parks director.

"It's something that interests all youth groups out here because land is at such a premium," said Gregory Dash, president of the Columbia Soccer Club, which has to scrounge for fields like everyone else. "We'd obviously like to see as many soccer fields on that property as is possible for the county to put there."

County parks have 51 baseball diamonds and 25 multipurpose fields for soccer, football and lacrosse, but that's not nearly enough to satisfy demand. From April to December, adult and youth players pack every field - every day, every daylight hour.

Established leagues, ballooning in size as children fill Howard's new houses, can't get as much field time as they want, and new teams go begging, said Michael Milani, a sports supervisor for the Department of Recreation and Parks.

An early conceptual plan for Blandair, designed by the county in 1998, shows a mix of recreation and nature: 13 playing fields, two roller hockey arenas, several basketball and tennis courts, and acres of quiet greenery punctuated by a nature center.

But Arthur said the citizens committee will start from scratch to design a plan for the park, which is split by Route 175 and sits mainly in the village of Long Reach.

Starting over offers hope for people who don't want to see so many playing fields - and for those who believe that sports are entirely out of place on Blandair.

Environmentalists, dismayed by the idea of turning relatively pristine open space into heavily used recreational fields, envision a nature preserve on the 300 acres. Howard County's chapter of the Sierra Club hasn't settled on a plan, but Chairman Dennis Luck said he would love to see trees planted on many of the estate's meadows.

The group that battled for more than three years in court for control of Blandair, arguing that Smith was on the verge of signing a will detailing the land's future when she suffered a fatal stroke, is offering a vision for the parcel, too.

The Blandair Foundation intends to ask the county for permission to manage the estate as an open-space management research facility, with wildlife sanctuaries, plots for organic gardening, trails for horseback riding, a place for the much-moved Howard County Farmers' Market and an eco-friendly education center, complete with composting toilets and electricity generated by windmill.

"I think it's the best plan for Blandair because I think it's the best plan for society in general," said Blandair Foundation Chairman Byron C. Hall Jr., who became Smith's friend more than 30 years ago. "I think we should be looking for uses which are for the long-term benefit of society."

Hall argues that the foundation's preliminary proposal is in line with Smith's wishes, and the county's goal of a park with a mix of active and passive recreation is not. County officials proposed a regional park for Smith's land while she was alive and she rejected the idea, he said.

He said he believes that the foundation could manage the land without tax money - and without bothering neighbors with as much traffic as playing fields would generate.

The Howard County Antique Farm Machinery Club doesn't want to manage the entire park. Its 150 members would be happy with the northern half, where the Blandair mansion stands near its aging outbuildings.

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