Md. OKs funds to expand preserve

21-acre parcel is expected to join Middle Patuxent area

talks are under way

Nature center envisioned

January 09, 2003|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Howard County parks officials won a commitment yesterday for nearly $2 million in state funds to increase a huge swath of preserved land in Columbia by 21 acres, an addition they believe could be ideal for a long-talked-about nature center.

The county and landowner are still negotiating a price. But the average appraisal was $94,500 an acre, similar to what the Department of Recreation and Parks has paid for land recently on Howard's very expensive east side.

Howard County spent less overall - roughly $1.8 million - on the original 1,000 acres that make up the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area, which stretches from one end of Columbia to the other. But that says more about the unusual circumstances of the 1996 deal than the spiraling costs of land in the affluent suburb.

The Rouse Co., convinced early that the greenbelt should be protected because it straddles the Middle Patuxent River and is a mating ground for woodcock, sold the 1,000 acres to Howard County for $1,800 an acre and put the money into a trust fund for the environmental area.

The nature preserve runs along the east side of River Hill village from Route 108 to Route 32, a refuge for hikers, birders and wildlife. The 21-acre property that is likely to join the fold is a rare uncommitted island in Columbia at the south end of the environmental area on Cedar Lane. Landowner Anne S. Robinson contacted the county in the hope of preserving her natural setting.

"Needless to say, she's had plenty of developers approach her over the years, and she's just not interested in that," said her attorney, Fred Leffler. "I think she's been in that house 50 years. She remembers when Cedar Lane was just a dirt road."

The preserve's advocates are excited by the possibilities.

"The more land we can protect, especially healthy chunks - 21 acres is a pretty healthy piece - the more desirable it is," said Joyce M. Kelly, a trustee with the Middle Patuxent Environmental Foundation. "It's wonderful that she approached the county to do it, and it would be wonderful if the county gets it. Hopefully, it will stimulate others to do the same thing."

Kenneth M. Alban, the county's administrator for capital projects and park planning, considers it a key purchase. The property has some open, flat areas that could be suitable for the local government's first nature center, which could supplement environmental education in the schools, he said.

Alban expects the deal will be closed before the end of year.

"This property is very close to the river and provides additional buffer to the stream," he said. "It's really a good acquisition for us. You're protecting against the construction of possibly 42 single-family homes."

Maryland's Board of Public Works, which agreed yesterday to the idea of eventually paying $1,983,000 for the land, unanimously voted to allocate $921,000 - Howard County's remaining share of state Program Open Space funds - for the first installment.

More than $94,000 an acre might seem like an astonishing sum - it certainly does to Carroll County officials, who have not paid more than $19,000 an acre for parkland in recent years.

But Alban said Howard County has been spending $90,000 to $100,000 an acre in the past few years for land on the east side, which is worth more than land in the west because it is zoned for more homes.

Baltimore County typically pays no more than half that for residentially zoned land, but it has acquired much pricier commercial land for green space. Anne Arundel County officials recently agreed to pay $100,000 an acre for parkland west of Annapolis - the county's highest-ever offer - and Montgomery often pays more than $100,000 for parkland on the expensive south side.

Montgomery, in fact, is in the middle of paying $5 million for not quite 2 acres next to the Friendship Heights Metro station. The small property has a substantial single-family house and the space for nine more, said Bill Gries, who manages parkland acquisitions for the county.

Ken Paynter, a trustee with the Middle Patuxent Environmental Foundation, sees the value of an expanded nature preserve, and he is glad that Howard sought state money to make that happen.

But he wishes officials would put more money into maintaining the land they already own, to guard against invasive plants from other countries - such as the autumn olive shrub - that are threatening to overrun wild areas. The foundation has been critical of the county because members believe the parks department is underfunded.

"In 20 years, we don't want to go back to this land and see it covered with autumn olive and be impenetrable," Paynter said.

Sun staff writer Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

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