Foundation wants Blandair used for `urban ecology,' education

Group lost bid for control, asks committee for lease

April 17, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

A group that unsuccessfully tried to win control of the 300-acre Blandair Farm argued last night that it should be allowed to lease the coveted Columbia estate from Howard County, a presentation that turned combative.

The county purchased the land in 1998 to turn it into a regional park, possibly with sports fields and nature areas.

The Blandair Foundation fought the issue of ownership until the state's highest court declined to hear the case in October.

Last night, three leaders of the foundation offered their plans - for research on "urban ecology" combined with hands-on education in farming and nature - to a citizens committee pondering the best use for the land.

Anticipating skepticism, foundation board member Mark W. Larson asked the committee to "break out of the mold" of park planning.

"It's groundbreaking, it's rare," said Larson, an environmental planner. "You have the chance to be a part of something very special and unusual."

Pointed questions from the committee suggested that its members are not convinced that the fledgling Blandair Foundation could see its sweeping plans through.

"Where's the operating budget?" asked Joan Lancos, who sits on the county Planning Board and is running for a County Council seat. "Where's the plan to show the committee you have the wherewithal to operate this place?"

"We would have to start slowly and build up," said Byron C. Hall Jr., the foundation's chairman, who offered a list of grants his group would seek.

`Best bird feeder'

"Let me tell you how we're going to make money: We're going to have a patent on the best bird feeder," said board member Aelred D. Geis.

"You don't take an invaluable piece of property and talk about a bird feeder," retorted Bob Moon, an architect who sits on the committee.

The Blandair Foundation's concept for the land - which is split by Route 175 - shows wildlife sanctuaries, pasture, farm plots, horse stables, an education center and space for the local farmers' market.

Visitors would be able to hear about the foundation's research on storm-water management and other issues, learn about organic gardening, see antique farm machinery and work with animals, according to the proposal.

Savings promised

Hall said it would save the county money because the foundation intends to cover its costs, except for the expense of restoring the aging and water-damaged Blandair manor house, though the group intends to help pay for that work.

His group is requesting a long-term lease on the property with an option to buy it.

"I don't want this to be an adversarial relationship," he said with a sigh when tempers flared during the question-and-answer period.

The committee, consisting of 23 county residents, has competing proposals to consider, including pleas from sports teams for playing fields and a request for an indoor pool. Its recommendation is unlikely until next year.

Until then, members will take written suggestions for the property, a sizable remnant of old Howard County.

"We're the stewards of that land," Moon said last night, "and it's something my grandchildren may enjoy but I will never be able to enjoy. It's that monumental a problem to solve."

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