Seeing Hazards

"The sole purpose here is to build a golf course . . . a very, very private golf course," Albert Lord says of his 244-acre tract. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 27, 2006

The library at Southern High School filled with a mix of aging farmers, young professionals and graying descendants of the old families of southern Anne Arundel County. Everyone wanted to know more about the man who plans to build a golf course, for his own amusement, on 244 acres of forest and field.

Developers brought their maps. Residents brought their misgivings. How could they be sure that Albert Lord, chairman of college loan behemoth Sallie Mae, wasn't going to double-cross them? Maybe he was really planning to use the land he had bought in Harwood to build pricey estates or a bustling private country club, with the attendant traffic clogging up their back roads.

Chairs shifted, chatter rose and the residents seemed poised to turn on the anonymous men in suits who said they spoke for the mysterious new neighbor at the Jan. 10 meeting in Harwood. "Are you going to answer all the questions?" one woman wondered from a back table.

Then a man in a blue sport coat stood and silenced the room. "I'm the owner," he said. "There are a lot of you here, and I'm sure you didn't come just to see the maps."

In November 2004, Lord quietly acquired much of the land along an old country road in a region the locals call South County, one of the last rural outposts within an hour's drive of downtown Washington. He paid $4.2 million, or about $17,000 an acre, according to property records.

South County, a landscape of ancient tobacco farms and two-lane roads, is slowly yielding to the pressure of development. Custom-built mansions are interspersed among tiny old frame homes and pastures.

County stewards have enacted strict land use and zoning rules in recent decades to preserve the sights, sounds and smells of yore. Gravel driveways, farm stands, winding roads with overhanging trees, hedgerows, farm vehicles, wooden barns and country smells -- "rural qualities" -- should be preserved, says a planning document for South County. To be avoided: cookie-cutter houses, sidewalks, streetlights, mega-churches and wide asphalt streets.

Lord assured his new neighbors at the town meeting that "the sole purpose here is to build a golf course, and hopefully a very nice golf course, and what will be a very, very private golf course. I'm your neighbor, for better or for worse. . . . And the goal here is to be a good neighbor and to do what's right."

Golf probably will come to Harwood with or without the blessing of the citizenry. Golf is a permitted use under the rural-agricultural zoning classification that covers Lord's property, said Edward R. Reilly (R-Crofton), chairman of the Anne Arundel County Council.

"There's no way to stop it," Reilly said.

Lord could fill the forest with homes, if that were his wish, provided he put no more than about 20 on his 244 acres. His plans have not been formally submitted to the county for approval. Lord said he hopes to have the 18-hole course ready for play next year.

Where Polling House Road meets Route 2 (Solomons Island Road), a major artery through South County, is a sign advertising "Quality Hay." Polling House twists past Hidden Acres Farm, past crumbling old barns where tobacco was once hung to dry, past grazing Herefords and no-trespassing signs, and up and down hills to the MacCeney home, an antebellum red-brick, side-entrance plantation house that sits at the center of the land Lord purchased.

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