Cathy Hudson

Cathy Hudson, a longtime resident of the historic Lawyers Hill community in Elkridge, stands on the edge of a neighborhood property she bought in April with her husband, Tiff. The couple, who plan to put an easement on the land, made the purchase to limit the development, seen here in the background, which they felt threatened the community. (Staff Photo by Jen Rynda / December 1, 2011)

When Myrtle Young died just shy of her 100th birthday last year, her neighbors in the historic Elkridge community of Lawyers Hill were saddened by the loss of one of the neighborhood's longest-standing stewards.

They were also worried about losing the environmental legacy she'd helped protect in the area for decades.

Despite increasing efforts at the federal, state and local levels to sustain forested land in the region, developments have continued to pop up in many formerly wooded areas around the Patapsco Valley State Park, and Young's death brought the threat of further development particularly close to home.

The nine-acre property she had long lived on stretches from the center of the Lawyers Hill neighborhood out to a wide swath of property, closer to Washington Boulevard and just up the hill from the park's Avalon Area, that is currently being developed.

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The neighbors feared Young's family would sell her land to those developers as well.

"We knew it would be snapped up by a developer, and said, 'Uh oh,'" said Cathy Hudson, a neighbor and local preservationist.

With the fate of the property up in the air, tension was high.

Then, one afternoon, Hudson saw Young's daughter, Sue Hays, by her mother's old mailbox, and they started chatting about the process of cleaning out a loved one's home. Hays told Hudson she was supposed to be meeting with Realtors soon. Hudson caught her breath.

Then, trying to stay calm, Hudson asked if she could take a look at the home herself, she recalled recently.

During a walk around the house, Hays expressed an interest in preserving her mother's property. Hudson went home and discussed the issue with her husband, Tiff, a computer scientist with the federal government who recently had received a substantial inheritance. The couple began eagerly discussing making an offer on the property but decided to sleep on it. The next day, they were like "kids on a Christmas morning" thinking about the potential purchase, and wrote up a contract, Hudson said.

The couple settled on the property with Hays in April.

"You could just feel the collective sigh of relief in the neighborhood," Hudson said.

Hudson is now working to place an easement on the property through the help of the Rockburn Land Trust, of which she is a board member. That will add the nine acres to about 200 other acres under easement with the trust, including Hudson's Old Lawyers Hill property, where she lives, and a handful of other neighbors' properites in the Lawyers Hill community.

Land cleared for 91 homes

The trust's efforts come at a time when wooded lands adjacent to or near the park are rapidly being developed.

At the edge of Hudson's nine-acre property are 76 acres that have been largely clear-cut to make way for 91 single-family homes.

Similar projects are being developed along Landing Road, Ilchester Road and College Avenue, as well as along Hilltop Road and Thistle Road across the river in Catonsville.

While development in the eastern part of the county and within existing local infrastructure makes sense from an environmental perspective, because it is smarth growth as opposed to sprawl, officials said, local preservationists said forest lands should be eyed with preservation in mind.

"We realize this is a smart-growth area, and a lot of the area will be densely developed, but even New York City has Central Park," said Hudson, who is also a member of Howard County's Environmental Sustainability Board.

Kit Valentine, president of the Friends of Patapsco Valley and Heritage Greenway, said his largest problem isn't development, but clear-cutting land when efforts could be made to preserve smaller plots of mature trees throughout new developments.