Panel convenes to discuss ideas for Blandair

Members consider own visions for park

`A rare opportunity'

Group agrees county should manage property

May 22, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

After multiple meetings spent listening to others, a group of citizens charged with dreaming up the details of a new regional park on 300 acres of prime Columbia land had its first conversation on the subject last night.

Members of the committee agreed the park should be managed by Howard County, not by a private group, as has been proposed. Otherwise, they hesitated to even discuss any of the many ideas that have been suggested for the property.

The meeting was a tentative step - more of a toe in the water than a dive in - but some warned against rushing. The county-owned property sits amid the heavily populated villages of Long Reach and Oakland Mills, a good location for the project but one that could haunt neighbors if the plan is not done right.

"It's right smack in the middle of established neighborhoods [and] a major highway," said David Hatch, one of 22 committee members. "I don't think it hurts to be careful."

For years, the property, known as Blandair, has been an island of forests and fields in one of Howard County's most densely developed areas. James W. Rouse tried to buy the land from the reclusive Elizabeth C. "Nancy" Smith but had to build Columbia around her.

She could not stop Route 175 - the state put it through her farm - but she never cashed the check for the road project.

Smith died in 1997. The next year, Howard County bought the property for $11 million, a purchase tied up until October by court appeals from the Blandair Foundation, a group formed by a friend of Smith's.

Numerous interest groups - lacrosse coaches, soccer players, enthusiasts of antique farm machinery, researchers, gardeners, historians - see their once-in-a-lifetime chance to mold the wide swath to fit their needs.

Members of the citizens committee met for the first time in 1998 and have held monthly sessions since November. At all the sessions until last night's, members have only listened to the ideas of others without offering proposals of their own.

Committee members also have a diverse set of interests. A new list of the activities members would like to see suggests that - momentarily, at least - their ideas go across the board. Many proposals, from horse show rings to restrooms, have no more than one person's support.

Suggestions at the top of the list include preserving the 19th-century brick mansion (10 people); using it for activities such as crafts and museum exhibits ( eight people); farming demonstrations ( eight people); pathways ( eight people); and sports fields ( seven people).

The committee reached a consensus on one issue last night: Members are interested only in letting the county manage the land, though they are open to partnerships with others.

The Blandair Foundation wanted to lease the parcel for urban environmental research and farm activities. Its proposal, which did not include sports fields, displeased some on the panel.

"I'm here because there's need for active recreation," said Dave Grabowski, former president of the Elkridge Youth Organization. "Under Blandair Foundation's proposal, active recreation went away. To me, that's not what a regional park is."

Some members seemed wary of offering even general details of what the park should look like. Sarah Uphouse, the Long Reach village manager, suggested the members solicit more ideas from the community.

"There's no good way into the property right now without tremendous, tremendous impact on the surrounding neighborhoods," she said.

Gary J. Arthur, county parks director, recommended that the panel hold community meetings after members have concept plans to share. But, he pointed out, Blandair is unusual. Until now, his staff has always designed parks with help from consultants. This time, residents are in charge. Whatever the final outcome, the park ought to be cutting-edge and spectacular, said one member. "We want the world to say, `Have you seen what they did in Columbia, Md.?'" declared Bob Moon, a Columbia architect. "This is just such a rare opportunity. Three hundred acres is a huge amount of land."

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