Saturday's groundbreaking for the county's $18 million James and Anne Robinson Nature Center on Cedar Lane marks the start of work on County Executive Ken Ulman's much-anticipated environmental jewel, but there's an unhappy family drama behind the celebrations.
The center will be the first of its kind in the county, and not only a state-of-the-art display of the best in green technology, but a place that Ulman hopes will help inculcate environmental and energy-saving values into thousands of county schoolchildren for years to come. Even better from a preservationist's perspective is that the Robinson land is at the southern tip of the 1,000-acre Middle Patuxent Environmental Area that was saved from development as Columbia grew around it.
While the project may mark a triumph for Ulman's effort to make Howard County a leader in environmental progress, there is an undercurrent of hurt feelings among the scattered members of Robinson's extended family, who recently learned about the groundbreaking from a local friend but have decided not to attend. Several wonder whether Robinson would have wanted such a large, active center on her land.
Anne Robinson was known for her determination to preserve the 18.4 wooded acres near the Middle Patuxent River north of Route 32 where she and her husband, James, who died in 1977, lived, starting in 1957. There are stories of her literally shooing developers away with a broom.
"She was always trying to think of ways to keep the land out of the hands of developers," said stepson James Robinson Jr. 71, who lived in the area until 1997. The extended family, he said, always knew Robinson wanted to preserve her land but didn't know details about the nature center plan.
"What has come now is much more elaborate than anyone expected," he said.
Anne Robinson died at age 89 in late February 2005.
But by 2001, her memory seemed to be deteriorating, said James Robinson Jr.'s son, Kurt Robinson, and in time, with no family left nearby, her accountant, Jeffrey D. Ring, took over her affairs and provided for her care. Eventually, the family felt shut out, Kurt Robinson said. After Anne Robinson's death, Ring, who had power of attorney, was personal representative for her estate.
The county bought the land from the Robinson Foundation created by Ring, and the deal was announced at a news conference in March 2005, days after her death, by then-County Executive James N. Robey.
The county paid the James and Anne Robinson Foundation $2 million for land that developers had been after for years, and at the news conference Robey displayed an enlarged $1 million check from the foundation that represented half the purchase price, returned as a donation to the county to guarantee seed money to help get the nature center project going. The county expects to work with the foundation in planning the center's programs, though the county will own and operate it, said recreation and parks director Gary J. Arthur.
Arthur said he asked foundation director Mary J. O'Neill to invite family members to the groundbreaking, but she said she was unable to locate them.
"We were very concerned about involving the family," O'Neill said, and had tried to contact them earlier with a letter sent to at least four family members in December 2007 asking them to contact her and participate in the center's planning for a display of family history.
"We never heard back," she said. Ring echoed that.
"We never got a response from them, ever," he said.
James Robinson Jr. acknowledged he got the 2007 letter, which mentioned plans for a nature center, said a groundbreaking was anticipated in 2009 and invited their contact and support.
But by then, family members had felt unwelcome for years, said Kurt Robinson. The letter, from someone they didn't know, seemed insulting, he said.
"Anne Robinson was an integral part of our family for almost 50 years and especially so after my grandfather's death in 1977," Kurt wrote to O'Neill last week. "None of us feel that decisions made at the end of her life reflect what we remember of that relationship."
Their feelings were hurt anew, Kurt Robinson said, when they accidentally heard about the groundbreaking within the past two weeks.
"I was speechless," said Robinson, to hear about the groundbreaking via a casual cell phone text and then a call from Brian England, a Columbia family friend and auto repair shop owner who for years maintained the Robinsons' vehicles and once employed Kurt.
"I was just shocked and angered," Robinson said.
For years, he had been close to his grandmother, and before moving to the West Coast in 1996, spent many hours with her, he said. After moving west, he said, he told her he was just a plane ride away if she needed him, and said he continued to visit and speak to her.
Ring said he never had a cross word with the Robinson family and doesn't know why they are angry.
"My fiduciary responsibility was to his grandmother," Ring said about Kurt Robinson. "He wasn't my client." Ring showed a 2002 letter signed by Anne Robinson describing her desire to preserve the land from development and have it used "for the enjoyment of the public in it's natural state," though the letter also specifically mentioned a possible nature center.
In her will, drawn up by lawyer Frederic D. Leffler and dated Oct. 21, 2004, just four months before her death, Robinson left $30,000 each to her friends and neighbors Lawrence and Gwen Peters, to her sister Agnes Rogers, and to her three stepchildren, James and John Robinson and Elizabeth Blair, but nothing to Kurt. All those bequests were paid, according to court records, by 2006.
The rest of her $1.7 million estate went to a variety of religious and charitable groups, ranging from St. Louis Catholic Church in Clarksville and the Christian Services of Howard County thrift shop where she volunteered, to a charity Ring founded called the Ukraine Children's Aid Fund Inc., which received $234,461.35, court records show. The largest amount, $937,845, went to help fund the Robinson Foundation's activities, most of which will involve supporting the nature center, Ring said.
Leffler, who attended the news conference, was sentenced in May 2005 to 37 months in federal prison for mail and wire fraud convictions in an unrelated mortgage flipping scam involving more than 200 Baltimore properties, and was disbarred in Maryland that same month.