Environmental gem is lost in land deal, activists say

306 acres under contract to builder

expected to be subdivided into 94 lots

270-acre property is sold

Preservationists say the pieces are `critical'

Howard County

July 26, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

A large swath of Ellicott City land once owned by Declaration of Independence signer Charles Carroll is headed for development, and preservationists are bemoaning the lost conservation opportunity, saying neither the county nor the state is aggressively trying to save environmental gems.

The 306-acre parcel, just north of the huge tract of preserved land known as the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area, is expected to be subdivided into lots for 94 expensive homes.

The land, known as Benedict Farm, is being developed by Toll Brothers and Carroll family descendants.

The family's Doughoregan Manor estate was once 10,000 acres - twice the size of Elkridge - but is now about 2,000 acres. Thousands of Ellicott City and western Columbia residents live on former Carroll land.

What the family still owns, including Benedict Farm, is nestled in one of the most exclusive nooks in the region. Houses in The Chase and Farside, two nearby neighborhoods, have sold for $750,000 to $3 million.

"That's the Potomac of Howard County," said Pat Hiban, a Columbia real estate agent who has been in the business for 14 years.

It is also an area preservationists would love to see protected.

The Middle Patuxent River runs along one end of Benedict Farm and through a nearby Carroll parcel also being developed. That 270-acre property is expected to yield 91 houses.

County regulations will require developers to cluster the houses together on 1-acre lots, leaving most of the land untouched. But conservationists who hoped for complete preservation are dismayed.

"From the Sierra Club's point of view, the land along the rivers [is] the primary land to preserve," said Dennis Luck, chairman of the group's Howard County chapter.

`Blew the opportunity'

Mary Catherine Cochran, president of Preservation Howard County, said the Carroll properties were key because they could have extended a green belt in central Howard, defined to the south by the roughly 1,000-acre Middle Patuxent Environmental Area, former Carroll land that the Rouse Co. sold to Howard County.

"Out of all the parcels in Howard County that could have been saved, those two were critical," Cochran said.

"We're talking about an environmental gem in the county that we just blew the opportunity to save. We should have pulled out all the stops to save those two parcels, and the county and the state did nothing."

Neither the county nor the state is aggressively pursuing preservation options for environmentally sensitive land anywhere in the county, she contends.

If conservation programs are not attractive to landowners anymore, she said, they ought to be revamped.

Joseph W. Rutter Jr., the county's planning director, is offended that preservationists think his department is not doing enough.

`Unfair,' Rutter says

"Yeah, it's unfortunate that we don't have the power to go in to condemn these properties," he said sardonically. "To say that we're not aggressively soliciting these properties is disingenuous and unfair."

He said the Carroll family has been a good steward of the land. Relatives put about 700 acres into the county's agriculture preservation program - one of the largest contiguous pieces of land protected in that fashion - and placed temporary easements restricting development on about 1,300 acres, he said.

The branch of the family that owns Benedict Farm is "keenly aware" of the conservation options, Rutter said.

"I would agree that it would have been great to have it preserved, but to say the county isn't doing enough," he said, pausing, "this is a voluntary program."

`Significant buffers'

Doug Shipe, vice president of Toll Brothers' Maryland division, said the river and its tributaries will have "significant buffers" from the new houses.

"Homes are habitat, too," he said. "I think we all forget that."

Toll Brothers, one of the nation's largest luxury-home builders, has a contract on Benedict Farm but has not bought it. Shipe would not say how much the company promised to pay.

But the neighboring Carroll parcel, which had been owned by two branches of the family, was sold in a public auction for $12.5 million last summer - or $46,300 an acre.

The winning bidder was Security Development LLC of Ellicott City, paired with one branch of the Carrolls.

Rob Moxley, vice president of Security Development, said Benedict Farm - with its prominent location along a mile of Route 108 - was also highly desired.

"That's a parcel that everyone under the sun was aware of," he said.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.