A `tenacious' friend fights on for Blandair

Retired professor wants hand in planning uses of Smith farm

September 05, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Byron C. Hall Jr. is no quitter.

The retired Ohio physics professor and friend to the late Elizabeth C. "Nancy" Smith lost a three-year court battle and multiple other attempts to gain control over her 300-acre Blandair farm in east Columbia. But he hasn't given up his struggle. Far from it.

Hall has written a book, To Save Her Dream, about Smith and her decades-long effort to fend off the Rouse Co., Howard County and everyone else Smith felt threatened her beloved home. And he is to speak to the local Sierra Club chapter Sept. 13 at county recreation headquarters to help promote the book and his Blandair Foundation.

"It's part of my personality. I'm extremely tenacious. I feel an obligation and a responsibility" to Smith, Hall said. Despite the lost battles, he said, the foundation "would like to have a hand in planning the use of the natural areas" of Blandair.

The land is owned by Howard County and is destined to become a regional park. A preliminary plan calls for about 80 acres of athletic fields and picnic areas, mostly south of Route 175, and restoration of the badly deteriorated 1850s manor house complex. Most land north of the road would remain a natural area.

The story of Blandair and of Smith's - and later Hall's - stubborn resistance as Columbia and suburban growth changed the rural, remote Howard County Smith loved is perhaps the most unusual episode in the planned town's history.

After Smith's death at 82 in early 1997 without a signed will, county and state officials bought the farm from Smith's estate.

Then the county had to wage a three-year court battle with Hall and his supporters over their claims that Smith was about to sign legal papers to create a trust to preserve her land when she died.

The recently announced sale of the Rouse Co. to a Chicago-based shopping mall corporation has evoked fond - perhaps gilded - memories of a benevolent James Rouse, but Smith considered him an "arch-enemy" who would stop at nothing to get his way, Hall wrote.

The division of Smith's land by Route 175 in the early 1970s embittered her, increasing her distrust of commercial developers and government. She blamed Rouse, increasing her fear of outsiders' intentions toward her and the farm where she had lived since her father bought the property in 1937, Hall said.

"One of her few comforts in her last year of life was that she outlived him," Hall wrote. Rouse died in 1996.

Hall's view of his friend is different from her public image as "an eccentric recluse who could not manage her affairs," which he describes in his book.

"In reality, she was a very bright and private person who helped others without fanfare who became a tragic heroine," he said. She managed the farm from age 24, in 1939, when her father died, and her mind was "clear and keen" at the end of her life, Hall said.

Although she rarely left her home during her last 15 years and let the big mansion house deteriorate inside and outside, she had good reasons, Hall said.

Her belongings filled the rooms until there were only narrow pathways between the piles, but she was saving her money for the trust she wanted to use to preserve her land, he said.

She let the house's exterior become overgrown to help protect her privacy. Fearing for her security, she refused to leave Blandair even briefly, and her severe arthritis limited her mobility more and more as she aged, Hall wrote.

If there's any surprise in Hall's continuing dedication, it might be in the last paragraph of his book, in the chapter he calls "Musings."

"More than 80 percent of her dream for the use of the land has been saved. I can stand tall and look myself in the mirror knowing I have kept my promise to my dear friend, Elizabeth Smith," he wrote.

Howard County Recreation and Parks Director Gary J. Arthur sees things differently.

"Saving" Blandair, in his view, was the result of 19 months of work and planning by a county-appointed 19-member citizens panel that sought a balance between the need for active recreation, such as playing fields, and passive open space and woods. Nearly 300 people testified, including Hall and his supporters.

"I think it's our job and Recreation and Parks' job to support land preservation. We try to create a balance, which is usually what gets us in trouble," Arthur said. Despite the fears of Hall and Smith about what might become of the land, Arthur said the county always intended to preserve much of it.

"We didn't want to completely develop and put athletic fields on all 300 acres," he said.

Hall's aim is to continue trying to influence the park's development, which he notes in the book is several years off, and perhaps spark creation of a 5-acre meditation garden devoted to Smith's memory.

"There has never been any personal hostility between me and any of the county officials," Hall said, acknowledging that "they have control of the property. It's no longer an issue."

Arthur said the county would be happy to entertain Hall's ideas, as the county has done throughout, and "might accept a donated stone or a memorial of some sort," but nothing as large as 5 acres.

To some in Howard County, Hall seems as unusual in his way as Smith was. But Mary Catherine Cochran, spokeswoman for Preservation Howard County, feels differently.

"I think he's a nice guy, very dedicated to what he thinks is Mrs. Smith's legacy," she said.

Hall, 66 and suffering from Parkinson's disease, said he is still hopeful.

"I think the Blandair Foundation should have a part in what's going on," he said.

The 157-page paperback book will be available next month on a print-on-demand basis from Publish America, a Frederick publishing house.

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