Paying for parking at a suburban shopping mall may seem like a contradiction in terms. After all, scores of stores moved out of traffic-clogged downtown Washington in recent decades largely to accommodate their motoring customers. So what are those 50 mostly empty "valet" parking spaces doing taking up prime space at the front door of White Flint Mall?

A spokeswoman for the center, a mecca for the affluent from the day it opened, says 30 to 35 of the spaces are filled on Saturday, when White Flint gets really busy. She adds that the mall's customers "expect those kinds of services."

But on weekdays, the $2-a-day spaces appear to be going begging, even when many of the 45-acre shopping center's 4,400 free spots are filled. A parking attendant on duty last week said he hadn't seen much business since the service was launched at the start of the month.

"It's obnoxious," one shopper said as she marched past the reserved spaces. "You might park there if you have an elderly relative," her companion said. "But we're perfectly healthy. We can walk."

The scene at the Nov. 6 land auction in Howard County was a now-familiar one: an isolated farm that had been lost to foreclosure, eager developers lined up in search of a good deal. But when the final bid was in, the otherwise ordinary 77.7-acre parcel just north of Old Frederick Road on Rte. 32 had garnered the highest confirmed price ever paid for county farmland. And the buyer was a farmer.

Jean Dickey, widow of a local developer and the owner of hundreds of acres of rural land, paid $720,000 -- or $10,000 per acre. That is 2 1/2 times the amount its previous owner paid for it in 1985, and $3,000 more than the highest rate paid per acre in the Slack's Corner area, according to Dennis White, director of Howard's Agricultural Land Preservation Program.

To White and others, Dickey's purchase also was noteworthy because it seemed to represent a reverse take on the drama playing in the county's booming western quadrant. Dickey has already enrolled her 433-acre horse breeding farm in the farmland protection program, meaning that it can never be developed for housing, and the high sum she paid indicated she wasn't planning to build on the new parcel either.

"I was somewhat surprised how the numbers went up . . . . It doesn't leave much in the way of profit," said Jack Boender, a local developer who quit bidding when the price topped $500,000.

For her part, Dickey had little to say about her acquisition. "It's hard to say, I haven't quite thought about it," she said. "Of course, I'm always interested in property. I just don't know what this will lend itself to from my family's standpoint."

After Words

"If I want to be nagged by a man, I will stay home in Silver Spring."

-- Montgomery County Council President Rose Crenca, reporting on what she told County Executive Sidney Kramer when he lobbied her on the controversial growth plan for Silver Spring.