Howard County Maryland Blog

Local Politics and Current Events

Blandair Park v Thunder Hill Alliance

Posted by David Keelan on Sunday, January 14, 2007

As you may have read in the Howard County section of the Baltimore Sun things seem to be heating up with planned progress on Blandair Park.  Here is a sketch of the master plan (pretty impressive).

A small but determined group of self-styled environmentalists is trying to derail plans for developing sports fields in the 300-acre Blandair park in Columbia, even arguing against a request for state money to help build the park.  

 The request for $500,000 in state bond money to help develop the park was the only one of four bond requests to draw fire at a delegation-sponsored public hearing on local bills held Thursday night in Ellicott City.

I don’t know how this will be resolved.  I like the master plan and will visit with my own family.  Is there a question regarding how Nancy Smith envisioned this property would be used after she passed away?  Did she intend to keep it preserved as is and that is all?  The Blandair Foundation seems to think so and pursued the matter legally for a number of years but their efforts proved without merit in the courts.  I think the question still lingers.

Ed, an informed reader provided this information for The Howard County Blog’s readers to consider.  I know you plan to post something on this as well and you should go ahead and do so.

Estate Background:

Miss Nancy Smith, a noted recluse, owned Blandair. She refused to part with her family home and historic estate despite repeated offers from the developers of Columbia. The State built Route 175 through her property- despite her strenuous efforts to keep that from happening. Ms. Smith never cashed the check the State gave her for condemning her land. In 1998, after Ms. Smith died, the State and the County purchased the 300-acre estate using 10.7 million in Program Open Space funds set aside by the State for the establishment of Parks. The State agreed to fund this park- contingent upon the land being developed as a Regional Park. Without the funds the 300 acres would be destined for intense residential development and could have contained upwards of 1,000 homes. It was an easy deal to make. A Regional Park that preserves some environmental features and the historic resources- or 1,000 new homes. (For more information on the history of Blandair- visit the PHC site here:

http://www.preservationhowardcounty.org/Blandair/Past.htm

The Committee*:

The committee was comprised of approximately 20 people and a fair representation of vested interests. Surrounding communities, active recreation proponents, environmentalists and preservationists were all well represented. Environmentalists and Preservationists had a clear edge- at least a 5:2 ratio- over the active recreation enthusiasts. For a list of the initial committee members visit here: http://www.preservationhowardcounty.org/Blandair/Committee.htm

The committee carefully considered the 1999 Comprehensive Recreation, Parks and Open Space Plan as a foundation for our discussions and eventual decisions. (The current edition- The 2005 Howard County Land Preservation, Recreation and Parks Plan- can be found online at the Recreation and Parks website http://www.co.ho.md.us/RAP/rap_compplan.htm ).

The goal of these documents is to plan for “the provision of leisure activities in balance with the conservation of resources.” (For those of you who may not know- this is the everlasting debate among environmentalists- how to balance the rights of people to visit and experience open space and parkland with the rights of people to have pristine environmental areas preserved forever.) In addition to evaluating local needs the plans fulfilled a State requirement that allows Howard County to be eligible to receive Maryland Program Open Space funds. Additionally these plans dovetail with the goals and objectives of the Howard County General Plan.

The County and the State define a Regional Park as a large multipurpose park for use by countywide population, but typically serving residents within a five-mile radius. These parks provide organized and unorganized sports, active and passive recreation and preservation of sensitive natural areas. The parks are “drive-to” parks that are staffed, consist of over 100 acres, offer a wide variety of recreational facilities which may include athletic fields, court games, hockey rinks, specialized facilities, indoor facilities and lighted facilities. Centennial Park, Schooley Mill, and Rockburn are examples of Regional Parks. (2005 Howard County Land Preservation, Recreation and Parks Plan).

The committee after months and months of meetings, open hearings and presentations, after reviewing reams of documents and listening to dozens of presentations, and with the input of the surrounding communities honored the commitment made to the State by providing both active and passive recreation in the final plan. In an effort to compromise and appease the environmentalist-heavy committee, the committee elected to put the bulk of the active recreation on the south side of 175 and only a few multi purpose fields on the north side. (Multi-purpose fields are generally grass fields without the infrastructure of dugouts, fencing or other structural enhancements. The use of lights was to be determined at a later date.) The north side also will host the restored historic resources and an adapted use for those buildings, a nature center and gardens and walking trails. It was a good compromise. We met the conditions of the contract with the State and yet still allowed nearly 2/3 of the park to be preserved for passive and environmental recreation. Elements of the plan included fields adjacent to Oakland Mills High School- the HS with the smallest amount of land area- so students there could have more room to run and practice. It also included ball fields and an indoor practice facility- both, which are critical needs in Howard County. (According to needs assessments and the 1999 Comprehensive Recreation, Parks and Open Space plan).

Mr. Moon, founder of the Thunder Hill Park Alliance, stood alone at the end of the process in his demands for 100% of the park to be an environmental resource with no active recreation. At the conclusion of the work of the committee he founded the Alliance to pursue his goals. It is this group that is protesting the Bond Bill.

So there are several underlying arguments and questions regarding this property.

  • Should a multi-year park planning process that included open meetings and presentations to the public and public hearings be set aside for the interests of a handful of citizens who have a different idea? Should state and local funding via a bond bill process be denied because a handful of citizens didn’t like the outcome of the local process?
  • Should a contract made with the State to utilize millions of taxpayer dollars in exchange for providing a Regional Park be broken to entertain the interests of a handful of citizens who have a different idea? And if we decide to not honor a contract made nearly ten years ago- does that weaken our ability to obtain future program open space funds for future projects-including ones for pristine environmental education areas?

In my humble opinion those are the questions that must be addressed first. Which park plan is best, and how the land would best serve the community are moot because a) that work was already done and a decision reached and b) a deal is a deal.

Follow up Questions might be:

Q: Aren’t pristine environmental education centers needed here?

A: Absolutely- we have one existing at Mount Pleasant Farm which is run by the Conservancy and we have two on the books for Howard County including the Robinson Nature Center- adjacent to the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area and Blandair.

Q: Is the Smith Farm/Blandair a pristine environmental area?

A: It is fine in a pinch, but as the property is bisected by Route 175 and surrounded by residential development it isn’t the best site for environmental education. There is nowhere on the property where you can escape the urban intrusion of traffic noise. The Robinson Nature Center is far superior because of its location adjacent to the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area and additional sites- as yet to be determined- could be more ideal.

Q: What about the vision of Rouse?

A: I have no idea what this means. There is abundant open space in Columbia- but no real environmental areas- other than the Middle Patuxent. There are few ball fields and active recreation facilities- except those at the schools. I don’t know what the vision was. And if there was a vision- I’m not sure it was implemented. And, since Blandair is an outparcel owned by the County- I’m not sure of the responsibility to use it as a means of satisfying any remaining debts owed by a vision of Rouse.

Q: We can’t possibly use more ballfields, and grass fields can we?

A: Actually we can. If you review the 2005 Howard County Land Preservation, Recreation and Parks plan you’ll see a detailed needs assessment for active and passive recreation. Ball fields are in great demand and are overused, creating additional costs for the county and unsafe conditions for the athletes. Schools share their fields in a limited way as they, too, are concerned about overuse. Specialty fields such as field hockey, football, and lacrosse are also needed. Remember, as a county we continue to grow and develop. New homes mean more children; more children mean more active and passive recreation space. We build it. They come. But where do they play?

Q: Why do we need organized sports or basketball courts anyway?

A: Not every child or every athlete will make their school team or earn a scholarship to the college of their choice. Recreation sports allow all children to participate in athletics. It is an active pastime that encourages exercise and sets up children for a lifetime interest in participating in sports. In a nation of couch potato children, anything that encourages an active lifestyle reduces the health risks and costs associated with the treatment of diseases and side effects associated with obesity. Encouraging adults to get up and get moving by providing pick-up basketball courts, or volleyball courts or horseshoe pits is an essential part of the mission of all Recreation and Parks departments.

Bottom Line:

  • We made a deal to use State money to create a Regional Park.
  • A Regional Park by definition includes active recreation.
  • A lengthy, exhaustive public process was utilized to finalize a plan for the park that incorporates significant nvironmental areas but still meets the state’s requirements for active recreation.
  • Protesting the Bond Bill is an attempt to hijack the public process and to circumvent the goals of many to meet the whims of a few.

*Tony Brudis: Member, Recreation and Parks Advisory Board and Registered Engineer. Mary Catherine Cochran: President, Preservation Howard County and Trustee, Vision Howard County. Martha Anne Clark: Owner, Summer Solstice Farm and Director, Preservation Howard County. Robert N. Cummings: Community and Urban Planner, Environmental and Historic Preservationist. Gladys M. Curley: Health Care Professional, Howard County Board of Health. Alexander Sandy Curtis:Vice President, Glenmont Homeowners Association, Urban Geography Professional. James H. Eacker: Former President, The Howard County Conservancy, and Chairman Commission on Adequate Public Facilities. Paul Farragut: Former County Council Member, Transportation and Natural Resource Planner. Steven G. Fishman: Professional Engineer. Roger M. Gabin: Electrical/Computer Engineer and Boy Scout Leader. David Grabowski: President, Elkridge Youth Organization and Member, Recreation and Park Advisory Board. Joan C. Lancos: Member, Howard County Planning Board and Member, Recreation and Parks Advisory Board. Sally Scott Marietta: Executive Director, Maryland Economic Development Commission. John F. Miller: Registered Professional Engineer/Planner. Robert J. Moon: Architect, Designer and Project Manager, Board Member Family Life Center. David Pardoe: Mid-Atlantic Region Director, Board of National Audubon Society, Director, And National Wildlife Federation.  Ida Lou Parlette: Former Blandair resident/historian.  Sylvia Ramsey: Manager, Environmental Program, Department of Transportation and Member, Governor’s Greenway Commission.  Sarah Uphouse: Manager, Long Reach Village. Granville Warren Wehland: Director, Howard County Historical Society Past Governor General, Maryland Society of the Order of Founders and Patriots of America.  Orrey P. Young:  Ph.D. Zoology/Ecology and Board Certified Senior Ecologist  Bridget Mugane came on board late as a rep from Oakland Mills as did  David Hlass.

Rec people in red and the environmentalists and preservationists in green. The folks in blue had a stake in keeping the park strictly a passive resource.

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8 Responses to “Blandair Park v Thunder Hill Alliance”

  1. Cheri Fulcher said

    I have no problem with the park as described above. I DO have a problem of allowing access to the park through our well-developed neighborhood of Glenmont. Traffic on rte. 108 due to Red Branch Road businesses and rte. 100 nearby has increased tremendously, but at least it doesn’t run through the neighborhood! Plans shown at the Blandair Planning Committee meeting ALL show access to the park through Glenmont, even though the community overwhelming voted against it. Surely there can be a compromise. Given the size of the property, there is sufficient land to have the facilities you want without impacting the surrounding neighborhoods.

  2. Casey said

    I don’t see at all how developing this land into a “recreational area” at all improves it. Kids and families already spend a ton of time in that space romping around after foxes and deer and playing imaginative kids games. Once again, this just smells like a developer trying to make a buck. Cutting down all these great old woods for some ballfields and a parking lot is really dumb. The ballfields we already have in Columbia are underused. I never have a problem finding one and so the justification for this development seems pretty flimsy to me. It would seem more reasonable to convert the area to housing. I am against that as well, but at least I could imagine better arguments for that sort of development than this boondoggle.

  3. Tom Fulcher said

    I attended the public hearings several years ago at which person after person spoke out against the park. By my estimation the objections ran ten to one against development. I read the responses above to the issues raised and it’s just more of the same. The planning committee is locked and loaded on their plan and are not listening to any objections. The public hearings appear to be a “box-checking” exercise for Gary Arthur of Recs & Parks, with no real intent of taking these hearings seriously (the responses to the questions above confirm this). Mr. Arthur stated at our neigborhood association meeting that if the we were not in favor of access through our neighborhood, then he would not allow access. We voted overwhelmingly (85%) against access, but Mr. Arthur has still included this in the plan. If this is indicative of how development is planned and approved in Howard County, then we, the taxpayers and citizens, are irrelavant to the process.

    Tom Fulcher

  4. Bryan Zidek said

    I don’t know how it ever got to be a regional park. When was that public hearing?

  5. Tim said

    Maybe this is why Ken Ulman and County Council closed GTV… they want to do as much as possible without the opposition to things like this. The public could have had some insight earlier had they kept the station on the air.

  6. Stephen Whitaker said

    Do any of the parties in this development/preservation debate have any information as to the original patent holder of this land?
    I’m researching my family history and the Caleb Dorsey original patent holders map shows the 150 acre Whittakers Chance being part of the Park in my best estimation.

    If there are any survey documents or title searches completed I would certainly appreciate being made aware of them. Feel free to email me directly at whitaker.stephen@gmail.com.
    Thanks,

    Stephen Whitaker

  7. Stop Howard County, Recs and Parks from destroying quiet neighborhoods. Check out Blandairpark.com Citizens standing up to the county and Recs and Parks.

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