With time running out before elections, Howard County officials believe the descendants of Declaration of Independence signer Charles Carroll of Carrollton will wait until after a new county government takes office in December to reveal plans for nearly 900 acres of their historic Doughoregan Manor estate.
Doughoregan is the only home of a signer of the Declaration of Independence still in family hands - the result of a single-minded effort over generations to preserve the property while keeping such a low profile that many residents don't know it is there.
The estate sits north of Route 108 along now-private Manor Lane in central Howard County, on some of the most valuable development land in the metro area.
A 30-year state historic easement protecting 892 acres of the estate, including the 280-year-old manor house and about 30 outbuildings, is due to expire in May of next year.
The ultimate goal of the owners, Philip Carroll, his son Phillip D. Carroll and his daughter Camilla Carroll, is to preserve the property in private family stewardship long into the future, while raising millions of dollars for repairs, future maintenance and to build the family's wealth.
To that end, the family has expressed no interest in accepting public preservation or open space funds, meaning they are most likely to resort to some combination of the private sale of development rights on a portion of the land while building expensive homes clustered together on other portions once the easement expires.
Such a strategy might require a zoning change and the extension of public utilities into the property. Current zoning would allow about 400 new homes.
County Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican running for county executive, who helped bring state officials in for a tour of the estate in February, said he has heard nothing from the Carrolls recently. Richard B. Talkin, the family's land-use attorney, declined to comment.
Marsha S. McLaughlin, county planning director, said she also has heard almost nothing from the Carrolls for weeks, and said that time is running out this year for any consideration of a zoning change.
"Anything that would require legislative action has to be filed in time for the July [council] session," said McLaughlin. That means planners would need any proposals by June 8, she said, to prepare them for introduction.
The council does not meet in August and is barred by law from making zoning changes starting in September, when the primary election is held.
"For something of the order of magnitude of Doughoregan, it's going to take a lot of discussion. This is going to be something the family thinks about and will happen after the election," McLaughlin said.
Although she earlier had hoped to resolve Doughoregan's future this year, McLaughlin said she now believes the family was taken aback by all the public attention their land has attracted. "All the headlines make them uncomfortable. When they're ready, they'll do something," she said.
McLaughlin has said the family needs to raise about $8 million over the next three years for immediate repairs and create a $12 million maintenance endowment, but would like to do that without developing the entire property.
That would mean clustering new homes on the property's eastern side, closest to Centennial Lane, and extending public water and sewerage - both touchy election issues that require county approval.
Mary Catherine Cochran, president of Preservation Howard County, agreed that waiting is the best course.
"I think it's better to not push something through at the end of a council cycle - especially something of this significance. Putting it off a little longer makes sense," she said.
But Cochran said the attention the land has drawn should come as no surprise.
"In reality, it's the most significant property in the state. They're going to have to get used to that interest and deal with it," she said.
Doughoregan was once a remote, 10,000-acre country plantation, but it now sits on increasingly scarce development land that can bring prices of $400,000 or more an acre. The Carrolls have explored the possibility of selling development rights for up to 600 acres, while developing a smaller 200-acre portion more intensely than current zoning would allow.
Preservationists such as Cochran want the entire property preserved without any development, possibly accompanied by an expansion of tiny Kiwanis-Wallis Park at the edge of the estate, on Frederick Road at U.S. 40.
The family could dot the estate with hundreds of new homes under current zoning, but then would have scores of families living close by - something they've worked for decades to avoid.