The 19 wooded acres in northern Harford County blend in well with the sprawling Boy Scouts campground that surrounds it.
But on state tax rolls, the tract essentially doesn't exist. No owner is listed — a rarity in Maryland — and as the Boy Scouts try to add the land to their campground and be declared the official owner, they must grapple with an arcane, Colonial-era convention known as a land patent.
Purchasing property by securing a land patent from the state was the way many people built wealth in the years after the Revolutionary War, but the practice mostly ended after the bulk of land in Maryland was first surveyed and sold off. The Baltimore Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America is using the same method to acquire a parcel that somehow slipped through the cracks.
"It doesn't happen very often," Richard Richardson, deputy commissioner of land patents and assistant state archivist for Maryland, said about land patent applications. "I've been doing this for 33 years, and we've only granted about five of them since I've been here."
The acreage sits amid the Broad Creek Memorial Scout Reservation, a 1,700-acre campground the Boy Scouts have operated for more than 60 years. The land, located off Peach Orchard Road near Whiteford and within feet of a Scout-operated trading post and swimming pool, has no roads or buildings.
The Boy Scouts want to take title to the land and maintain it as part of the campground, which is used by more than 20,000 boys and adults every year. But first they must convince state officials that the property was never granted to anyone else, going back to the days of Cecil Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore, and King Charles I of England. If they succeed in proving their case, they also must pay the state the appraised value for the land and the state's Board of Public Works has to approve the transaction.
In any given year, state officials say, there is at least one case in which someone claims to have discovered land that was never granted to another party — what the state considers "vacant land." But few "discoveries" turn out to be valid.
The Scouts say the land in question — one of the largest tracts of "vacant land" brought to the state's attention — is surrounded by property they own and that they have been taking care of it for years under the assumption that it was theirs.
"The Boy Scouts are just trying to do the right thing," said Eric Chase, the organization's director of support services. "We're trying to complete the puzzle."
The organization has no plan to alter the natural setting if it becomes legal owner of the land, Chase said
"Our goal is to take kids into the outdoors," he said. "This is where we teach camping and hiking and backpacking. We want to be out in nature."
The last time a private entity successfully applied for a land patent was in 2002, when a Carroll County man identified a four-acre tract next to his 10-acre homesite that wasn't documented on the state's tax rolls. In 1985, a professional surveyor identified 77 acres in Frederick County that had never been granted to anyone.
Unsuccessful applications have involved a Chesapeake Bay island, which turned out to be man-made, and a sliver of coastline in Calvert County, later determined to belong to owners of adjacent land.
In theory, all 6.7 million acres in Maryland have been patented, but there can still be exceptions, Richardson said.
Two hundred years ago, "surveying was not as precise as it is now," he said. "Surveyors were out in the woods. There were faulty surveying lines. … As land become more valuable over the years, people started surveying it better and looking after it better."
State law outlines a process that enables anybody to acquire vacant land.
"They have to prove that from the days of Lord Baltimore in the 1630s to 2012, the land has never been owned by anybody else," Richardson said. "If they can prove that, that means the land is owned by the state of Maryland, and we can grant it" to another party.
The Boy Scouts applied for a patent last year, and state officials are reviewing the application. That claim is the only one pending in Maryland, Richardson said.
According to Richardson, the review process calls for the applicant to have the land surveyed and demonstrate to the state that the tract has not been granted to any other party. He said the state will attempt to verify whether an applicant's claim has merit. If no other party is determined to have ownership, the commissioner of land patents will hold a public hearing to determine whether to grant a land patent.
The first party to make an application is the first in line to be considered, Richardson said, and the state is neither required nor permitted to seek competing bids.
Chase said it was something of a fluke that the Boy Scouts discovered that the land is not theirs.
Chase said the Boy Scouts have acquired property for the Broad Creek campground over the past 65 to 70 years through purchases and gifts, and intended to put most of it into a series of land trusts to preserve it in its natural state.
Several years ago, he said, they put about 870 acres in land trusts, including a 60-acre parcel with Harford County and the bulk of the land with the U.S. Forestry Department. Then the Boy Scouts began the process of putting another 800 acres in a trust.
To put land in a trust, he said, a party must demonstrate ownership. After surveying the second 800 acres, he said, the Boy Scouts could not show they had clear title to the 19-acre parcel. In searching land records, they were unable to determine that the property was ever granted to anyone, and that led them to start the process of applying for a land patent, he said.
Richardson said the state published a newspaper notice announcing the Boy Scouts' application and notified owners of adjacent property. It alerted agencies such as the Department of Natural Resources and the State Highway Administration.
The deadline for anyone else to claim ownership was Jan. 20, and state officials say no one came forward. The next steps include a public hearing, likely to take place in March. If the Commissioner of Land Patents, Edward Papenfuse, determines that the Scouts' application has merit, the state will have the land appraised and determine a fair market value.
The state has incentive to sell the tract, officials say, because a sale would generate revenue for the state and clarify land records. The first $50,000 of any sale, minus surveying costs and reasonable legal fees, goes to the Maryland State Archives, which Papenfuse also heads. Any amount over that goes to the state's general fund. Richardson said the state has no idea how much the land might be worth because it has never been assessed.
In every land patent case, he said, buyers must abide by local zoning rules and regulations governing use of the land.
That isn't a problem for the Boy Scouts because they don't want to develop the property, Chase said. "We're not trying to be next to a shopping mall."