Landowner's last wish fulfilled


Anne Robinson was passionate about preserving her wooded property on Columbia's southern edge, sometimes even chasing off developers with a broom.

As the value of the property grew with development around the Howard County planned community, the offers got higher and higher. Last year, someone bid $5.5 million.

Still, the diminutive woman - who spent her final years as a widow in a badly run-down home on the property - said no.

"Her desire was to keep it pristine," said Jeffrey D. Ring, Robinson's accountant. "She fed the deer and named them."

Instead of selling, Robinson created a foundation in 2003 to hold the 18.3 acres, which are close to the ruins of a historic 18th-century mill on the Middle Patuxent River. Her dream was to preserve the land and build a nature center there, at the southern edge of the 1,000-acre Middle Patuxent Environmental Area.

Yesterday, five days after she died at age 89, Howard County officials announced that they had bought the land, on Cedar Lane just north of Route 32, from the foundation for $2 million and that Robinson's wishes would become reality.

The foundation donated half the purchase price back to the county as seed money to begin building a $4 million, 15,000-square-foot nature center on the property. The other $1 million will be used by the foundation to support the project and its programs, Ring said.

Anne Robinson and her late husband, James, bought the land and built a house there in 1957, when Cedar Lane was a dirt road and Columbia hadn't yet been conceived.

James died in 1977, but Anne remained in their home until last year, Ring said. The deteriorating house was demolished two weeks ago.

Anne Robinson was a tiny woman and a voracious reader, Ring said, often calling him to complain about something she saw in her daily reading of local newspapers.

"She was a treat" to know, Ring said. "She was feisty and sharp as a tack."

Though development had swallowed the thousands of acres of former farmland and woods that once surrounded her homestead, Robinson held onto her land while preserving her privacy. She studiously avoided any public notice.

The millions she was offered meant nothing to her, Ring said. Her surviving sister, Agnes, who lives in North Carolina, and her three stepchildren - now senior citizens themselves - agreed with her desires, said Ring and Fred Leffler, Robinson's attorney.

When her idea of transferring the land to the county was first broached three years ago to Mark Raab, Howard County's Natural Resources superintendent, "he nearly came out of his chair" in excitement, Ring said.

That's because the land is at the southern end of the huge Middle Patuxent Environmental Area, and has enough road frontage on Cedar Lane to allow development of a major new access to the preserved land.

Financed with $1.7 million in state Program Open Space money and $300,000 in county excise tax funds, the purchase went to settlement Feb. 18, according to Gary J. Arthur, county Recreation and Parks director.

Arthur said the foundation's gift of $1 million from the purchase price will enable planning for the facility to start quickly and construction to follow, perhaps in two years. Ring said the foundation would use the remaining $1 million to help support programs at the nature center, and perhaps to create scholarships for budding young environmentalists.

Howard County Executive James N. Robey, who accepted an oversized check for $1 million from the foundation at a news conference in Ellicott City yesterday, said Robinson's gift is a rare one as land values climb steeply in Howard County.

"The world needs to know there are people willing to sacrifice money" for the public good, Robey said.

Although Robinson disdained public notice for her altruism, Ring said, the foundation has retained naming rights for the center, which he said will be called the "James and Anne Robinson Nature Center."

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