Don't rush decisions about Smith farm's fate


THE NAMES are familiar. You see them whenever you drive around Columbia -- Brunners Run Court, Sewells Orchard Drive, Vollmerhausen Road, Dasher Green Elementary School.

These names weren't picked out of thin air, the way some street monikers in Columbia seem to have been. They recognize the farms that were sold to make way for Jim Rouse's planned city.

The Vollmerhausen family owned a 140-acre farm on what is now commercial property on Gerwig Lane and Berger Road. Brothers George and Irving Dasher had a 680-acre cattle and grain farm off Oakland Mills Road.

The Sewell family really did have an orchard, 250 acres, where a tidy subdivision now sits. The Brunners had a 100-acre farm that has become part of Long Reach village.

It's hard to visualize amid all the concrete and asphalt that exists now what all this land looked like pre-Columbia, more than 30 years ago.

"Bucolic" is the way one woman described it.

That was Nancy Smith. She died more than a year ago, vowing her 300-acre farm would never be similarly developed.

The property was finally sold Monday to Howard County by her heirs. But Miss Smith still could get some of her wish.

The main thing she wanted was to keep the property out of the hands of the Rouse Co. It had expressed the possibility of developing the Smith farm as part of nearby Oakland Mills Village, with a mixture of commercial uses, detached homes and townhouses.

Miss Smith left no will, but she made it clear that she didn't want any houses built on her land. Her father gave it to her in 1937. He died in 1939. Miss Smith never married. After her mother's death in 1979, the farm fell into disrepair.

Against Smith's wishes?

The county wants to turn the property into a regional park that would attract families from outside Columbia. That doesn't sound like the peaceful setting that Miss Smith wanted.

Thousands of soccer and baseball players covet a portion of the Smith farm for new lighted fields. If they get it, the land where they play will be anything but quiet.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker has named a 12-member committee of local leaders, planners and recreation officials that will develop plans for the proposed park.

The committee must make sure it gets as much public input as possible before coming to any conclusions about what the park should be. Concerns have already been expressed.

Preservationists are afraid ball fields will be located too close to the historic brick mansion on the Smith property.

The county has agreed to restore Blandair House. If it pays thousands of dollars to fix it up, the county should want to keep the house safe. But how far away do the ball fields have to be to protect the character of the house's surroundings? That's what preservationists want.

There's no need to rush any decision. A year ago, the county didn't even think it would be able to purchase the property until the year 2000.

But Gov. Parris N. Glendening came up with $6.7 million to match the county's $4 million to complete the transaction.

Now that the property is in hand, care must be taken to make sure its use best benefits Howard County.

It's big enough to accommodate a number of ideas and still leave a portion as natural as Miss Smith would have preferred.

The hourglass-shaped tract is split by Route 175, which was built through it over Miss Smith's objections. There are 187 acres on the northeast side of the highway, 95 acres on the southwest and another 11 acres less than a half-mile away.

Walking paths, nature trails

The county Recreation and Parks Department has proposed using the land to the north for quieter recreation activities with walking paths, nature trails and picnic areas in meadows.

Tennis courts, baseball and soccer fields would be on the other side of the highway. The 11 acres off to itself could remain as it is, perhaps used as a bird sanctuary.

But these are just ideas. Additional study must be done before Mr. Ecker's panel makes any recommendations.

The Thunder Hill, Phelps Luck and Stevens Forest communities would be affected by any additional traffic and noise that regional park would bring. Those neighborhoods need to be heard.

The $10.7 million paid for the Smith farm is equal to about $35,600 an acre.

That's a far cry from the average of $1,500 an acre that farmers were being paid when Rouse Co. came knocking 30 years ago. And they were getting three times what similar farmland brought.

What the county and state were willing to pay for the Smith property is the best gauge of its potential value.

Whether it will ultimately be deemed worthy of such a price, though, will depend on decisions about its use yet to come. Those decisions should not be made in haste.

Harold Jackson writes editorials about Howard County for The Sun.

Pub Date: 8/16/98

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