After years of delays, county parks officials say they are prepared to make their biggest purchase -- and in doing so become the guardians of Columbia's 1,000-acre back yard.
The purchase of 940 acres between River Hill village and the rest of Columbia will complete the county's acquisition, planned for more than 20 years, of the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area.
Officials hope to buy the property from the Rouse Co. within 30 days for about $1.5 million. Money for the purchase is allocated, although final settlement details -- including the price -- are being negotiated.
"It's taken us a long time, and certainly we're excited about the prospect of coming to conclusion here in the next several weeks," said Jeffrey Bourne, county director of recreation and parks.
The news was welcomed by naturalists, who say the site's diverse ecosystem filled with wildlife along Middle Patuxent River needs tending. Otherwise, they say, the heavily wooded former cornfields would become unbroken forest inhospitable to even their most famous inhabitant: the woodcock.
The woodcock, a pheasant-like fowl, figures prominently in the preserve's creation.
Naturalist Aelred Geis said it was an amorous [See Preserve, 6B] woodcock that charmed Columbia founder James W. Rouse into preserving the area in the late 1960s, when Mr. Geis took the developer to watch the woodcock's courtship ritual in a field off Trotter Road.
After watching the fluttering display, Mr. Rouse crouched in his business suit, eye-to-eye with the woodcock as it finished its courtship activity on the ground.
Mr. Geis said the developer asked how much of the area the
birds needed -- and the next thing Mr. Geis knew, the woodcock mating ritual appeared in a 1967 issue of Life magazine that was devoted to Mr. Rouse's plans to build Columbia.
"We will even have a wildlife preserve," Mr. Rouse told the magazine of his revolutionary planned city. "At one point we asked ourselves: 'Can we afford to set aside 50 acres for the courtship of the woodcock?' When we thought about it, we decided we could."
That 50 acres became 1,000 in 1976, when the Rouse Co. got county approval for major changes to Columbia's master plan, said Alton J. Scavo, Rouse Co. senior vice president and general manager of Columbia.
Under the old plans, houses would have been built on the woodcock mating area, as it became known, and a 305-foot dam would have backed up waters of Middle Patuxent River to create a recreational lake.
Mr. Geis also cheered the county's progress on the sale.
"I think it's a really good deal for those of us who are interested ithe Middle Patuxent Environmental Area," he said. "It's been good for [the Rouse Co.], too."
The principal benefit to Columbia's developer, Mr. Geis said, was that keeping the Middle Patuxent River valley open gave the company more flexibility to develop elsewhere in Columbia.
The Rouse Co. is limited by its county-approved zoning to developing 2.3 houses or apartments an acre. That includes any open space or commercial areas, so the preserve represents 2,300 potential housing units the company can develop elsewhere in Columbia.
Mr. Scavo said it's true that the area allows more dense development elsewhere in the city, but said the company also could have made a substantial amount of money filling the valley with water and building houses around it.
"I think that we did the right thing," he said. "I know that we did the right thing."
Mr. Bourne blamed the delay in buying the property on two factors: the complexity of the county's largest land purchase and the fact that there was no urgency to close the deal.
Simply surveying the property was a huge undertaking, he said.
"It has virtually hundreds of twists and turns in its boundaries," he said. "In many respects, it takes on the general shape of a piece of spaghetti."
Those twisting boundaries also are difficult to police and maintain, especially where they abut the back yards of homes in Clary's Forest.
For several years, the Columbia Association and the county disagreed on how to care for the preserve's fringes.
One issue that arose was the association's standards for cutting grass near roadways.
Although the county would have cut the grass only a few times a year, the association sought a more aggressive schedule. After the sale, the Columbia Association will maintain the fringe areas, Mr. Bourne said.
Mike Rethman, who represents Clary's Forest as the Hickory Ridge village member on the Columbia Council, said he is glad nTC to see the sale near its conclusion.
"I'm cheered that the developer of Columbia and the Columbia Association are able to work in collaboration to make that happen," he said. "I think it's an example of the best kind of cooperative approach to land management."
Mr. Geis said he is looking forward to the county managing the preserve's habitats.
The first step would be to go in and clear the area where Mr. Rouse and the woodcock met.
"Now it's getting so overgrown that the woodcock are using it somewhat less," he said. "Back then, you could see four males at work at once. Now, you're hard pressed to find one."