Preservation Mixed With Profit

Descendants of Declaration of Independence signer discussing plans to develop part of Howard estate

December 25, 2005|By LARRY CARSON | LARRY CARSON,SUN REPORTER

Descendants of a signer of the Declaration of Independence are quietly discussing a plan with Howard County officials to develop hundreds of homes on part of the 892-acre family estate in western Ellicott City - the county's largest undeveloped block of privately owned land.

The plan under discussion could reap tens of millions of dollars for the Carroll family, whose ancestor Charles Carroll once owned 10,000 acres in the county. But it could also set off an election-year furor in one of the nation's wealthiest counties, where the estate has served as a buffer to encroaching development amid spiraling land prices.

"It's one of the most architecturally and historically significant private properties in the country," said Tyler Gearheart, executive director of Preservation Maryland. "We want to see as much preserved as possible."

Philip D. Carroll and his sister, Camilla, want the public to pay up to $24 million to permanently preserve about 600 acres of Doughoregan Manor, named for the family's ancestral Irish home. They would allow about a quarter of the rest to be developed as a way to finance repairs and preservation at their secluded country estate amid the western county's rolling farmland.

In exchange, the Carrolls would give up the right to develop even more homes spread across the property, which in May 2007 is open for development with the expiration of an unusual 30-year Maryland Historic Trust easement set up to reduce inheritance taxes.

The family's aim, said County Executive James N. Robey and other officials who confirmed details of the discussions, is to raise enough money to restore and maintain the estate for many decades.

Philip and Camilla Carroll's families shared in the $12.5 million auction sale of 270 acres south of the manor in 2001. The sale averted a court dispute between two branches of the family over developing the land.

"They'd like to be there another seven or eight generations, if not more," county planning director Marsha S. McLaughlin said.

Doughoregan Manor, which has as it centerpiece a 20-room English brick mansion with a private Catholic chapel, dates to 1720 and is the only home of a signer of the Declaration of Independence still in family hands.

The manor house, reached by a mile-long driveway off Manor Lane, is screened by thick woods from the crop of mini-mansions that has sprouted to the west.

"You really can't say enough for how important this place is," said Robert Nieweg, southern field office director for the National Historic Trust for Historic Preservation, who said the estate was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1971.

Any proposal to develop the estate would have to contend with growing anti-development fervor at a time when the demand for new homes in Howard County is sharply driving up land values.

"We need to save all of it," said community activist Ann Jones. "That's the largest block of preserved agricultural land in the county."

But some development on the land appears inevitable. If the county balks at paying top dollar to preserve most of the land in exchange for limited development, the Carrolls have the right to develop more homes, spread across the estate.

The Carroll family is intensely private, some of them living amid more than 30 buildings in their compound between Columbia to the south and Frederick Road to the north, virtually sealed off from the suburban homes all around.

More than 1,200 additional acres owned by the family are protected from development under the county's agricultural preservation program.

The Carrolls' extraordinary devotion to preserving the property is rooted in the persecution early family members suffered as Catholics, in Ireland and in the Protestant-dominated colony of Maryland.

But the plan the family has been privately discussing with county government officials for at least six months likely would create a fierce controversy if Robey accepts it. McLaughlin has scheduled the first public meeting to discuss Doughoregan's future with Preservation Howard County on Jan. 5.

Robey characterized the talks as preliminary.

"This is an informational exchange," Robey said. "I have committed to nothing." He said he doesn't feel pressured to reach any agreement before he leaves office in December 2006.

The Carrolls' proposal, confirmed by Robey and McLaughlin, would permanently preserve about 600 acres of the land while developing 200 acres on the tract's eastern side.

They hope to sell development rights to the county or the state or both for up to $40,000 an acre - double the current maximum - for a total of $24 million, while building about 350 homes. Development would be clustered and aided by the extension of public water and sewer lines to the land, which lies outside the area of Howard County now served by public utilities. Zoning changes are also possible.

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