Former Howard County farm envisioned for children's garden

Former farmland near the heart of Columbia would become a children's garden and "early childhood education nature center" if a citizens group is successful in persuading Howard County officials to carry out the project.

The land is part of a 300-acre tract — once known as the Smith farm and now called Blandair Park — that the Rouse Co. was unable to acquire when it assembled 15,000 acres to build Columbia starting in the 1960s.

The heavily wooded property straddles Route 175 between Tamar Drive and Thunder Hill Road, making it highly visible to people driving to Columbia from Interstate 95. Howard County acquired it in 1998, one year after owner Nancy Smith died without a will, and has an eight-phase plan to transform it for park and recreational use. The entire project is expected to cost $54.7 million and take eight to 10 years to complete.

A community group, the Thunder Hill Park Alliance, has been pressing county officials to turn part of the land into a specialized garden and nature center that would support county and state efforts to get children out from behind their computers and TV screens and into nature.

They envision the land being converted to a destination with gardens, nature trails, meadows, ponds, wetlands and other outdoor spaces where children can explore the environment.

Elements of the plan include a community garden and greenhouses, interpretive nature center, environmental science lab and "celestial observation station." Proposed activities range from field archery to art displays to overnight sleepouts.

Advocates for a children's garden say it would put Howard County at the forefront of a national movement to create unstructured play spaces for children in nature. They say it would be a regional amenity that would help stabilize the surrounding area, draw families to Columbia, and support plans for revitalizing Columbia's town center, without being duplicating existing county park facilities.

County officials say they are willing to consider ideas from the Thunder Hill Alliance and have designated "three or four acres" of the Blandair property to create a children's garden along the lines of what the group has suggested. They say the garden could be carried out as a later phase of the property's transformation, and there is still time to incorporate the group's ideas into the county's already approved master plan for the property.

In the meantime, the county has already begun building the $6.1 million first phase of Blandair Park. Containing three multipurpose fields with synthetic turf, a picnic shelter, playground and 425 parking spaces, it is scheduled to open this year or early next year.

John Byrd, director of Howard County's Department of Recreation and Parks. said the county is receptive to working with community groups that have ideas for ways to develop Blandair Park, especially because the county will need volunteers to help operate it.

"We've had that door open," he said. "We're always looking for partnerships with groups that have common goals. … Any community organization that wants to get involved, we would we happy to talk with."

Members of the Thunder Hill Alliance say they want to see the county add amenities on the Blandair property that don't exist elsewhere in the county.

"This is an opportunity to put Columbia on the map with a great park for children," said Bob Moon, a Columbia resident and architect who started the nonprofit. To prepare its master plan, the group hired Herbert Schaal, a nationally recognized landscape architect who is based in Fort Collins, Colorado, and specializes in the design of children's gardens.

"This will have an enormous, positive impact" on the villages of Oakland Mills, Long Reach and Thunder Hill, Moon said, referring to communities adjoining Blandair Park. "It's one of the largest natural assets the county has. It's a chance of a lifetime"

An interactive children's nature area incorporating Schaal's ideas for unstructured nature play and exploration "has the potential to be a crown jewel model for the entire state," said Julie Dieguez, coordinator of the Maryland No Child Left Inside Coalition, in a recent letter to Howard County Executive Ken Ulman.

Thunder Hill Park would provide an "attractive and beneficial opportunity for the citizens of Howard County to become engaged with nature and each other in the midst of a densely populated contemporary community, instilling in them a sense of responsibility for and stewardship of the open spaces, waterways and natural resources that so richly shape our lives."

Moon, who serves on Gov. Martin O'Malley's Coalition for Children in Nature, said the land presents a rare opportunity for Howard County because it is near the intersection of Interstate 95 and Route 175 and less than a mile from the heart of Columbia, but hasn't been developed since it was a farm. He said Smith, who never married, raised cattle there and grew crops such as corn, wheat and oats.

Moon said developer James Rouse wanted to buy the Smith property to build houses but never was able to make a deal with Smith. When she died without a will in 1997, former county executive Charles Ecker moved to acquire it using $6.9 million in "Program Open Space" money from the state of Maryland and $4 million in county funds.

Byrd said he wasn't aware of the Rouse offer, but he knew that the State Highway Administration acquired part of the Smith farm to build Route 175 on it, dividing it into two parcels. About 100 acres is south of Route 175, and the other 200 acres is north of Route 175, Byrd said.

Moon said the goal of the Thunder Hill Park Alliance is to use part of the land to create a high quality park with child friendly activities that can't be found elsewhere in Howard County. He said the county has been good at creating ballfields, but there is a need for areas where kids can explore and learn about nature.

Moon and others say the time is right for such a project because Maryland recently became the first state in the country to require that all public school students learn about nature and the need to protect the environment as part of their curriculum. He said he believes that a nature park and children's garden would help address that requirement while providing an amenity for Howard County that even Rouse couldn't create.

"He did a remarkable thing with the land he had. " Moon said. "Now we have an opportunity to make a statement too…This would be unbelievable for the state."

In recent months, the group has been promoting the project with a "Thunder Hill Park Alliance" page on Facebook and meeting with community leaders to build support for the project.

As of last week, 799 people "liked" the children's garden project on Facebook .The plan also has been endorsed by groups such as the No Child Left Inside Coalition, which is affiliated with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Before a children's garden can take shape, however, county officials would have to go through a public review process and agree to a specific plan.

Byrd, the recreation and parks director, said the county has begun redeveloping Blandair Park with the 100 acre parcel south of Route 175. He said the $6.1 million first phase will be followed by a second phase south of Route 175, containing two baseball fields, a skate park, a playground, tennis courts and parking for another 160 cars.