The Howard Community College Educational Foundation has closed its purchase of Belmont Conference Center in Elkridge, taking ownership of the 18th-century estate for $5.2 million.
The purchase was hailed by HCC President Mary Ellen Duncan, who said the finalization of the deal Friday was "an incredible day for the college." But news of the sale was greeted with trepidation by some nearby residents, who fear the college will allow part of the Belmont property to be developed.
The college will manage the property for the foundation, which is a nonprofit fund-raising group, and plans to continue using it for conferences, retreats and events.
"The major thing the first year is just to make sure the business is solid," Duncan said.
Revenue from the center is needed to cover operating costs, she said.
The college also wants to start offering programs through the continuing education program and, beginning in the fall, use the site for classes in its hospitality management program.
In the near future, the college plans to make several improvements:
Creating an access road from Landing Road to the property that would relieve congestion on the one-lane Belmont Woods Road, which provides the only access.
Renovating a barn to provide additional meeting space.
Renovating a vacated house on the property for more guest rooms.
Improving computer systems and Internet connections.
The foundation bought the property without using any of the school's operating, scholarship or capital funds. It used a bank loan and a $1 million down payment by a private individual.
The college still must decide the best way to pay the capital costs. It is considering partnerships with government agencies, such as the county parks department or the schools, or sharing use of the property with other higher education institutions.
It is also exploring developing senior housing to create a "live and learn" setting used at other colleges.
The manor house, barn and 30 acres are protected by historical easements, but another 40 acres and a 13-acre outparcel could be subdivided.
"I think it's always good to keep all the doors open until we absolutely know what we're doing," Duncan said.
Neighbors of the property are alarmed by the possibility that houses could be built on the secluded site, which is surrounded by Patapsco Valley State Park. Another 106 nearby acres have been put in nondevelopment easements by Belmont's neighbors.
A group of Elkridge residents has formed the Save Belmont Coalition "to preserve the vision established by the Smithsonian Institute for the historic tradition and the economic viability of Belmont," according to a statement on the coalition's Web site at www.savebelmont.org.
The Smithsonian bought the property in the 1960s and turned it into a retreat center with tennis courts, a pool, gardens and walking paths. For the past 20 years, the center has been owned and operated by the American Chemical Association.
"It's a high level of responsibility - to be the steward of this historical retreat - but we trust that HCCEF will continue the land-use agreements that have previously been set forth," said coalition member Cathy Hudson in the statement.
County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon said he also wants to see Belmont "remain in its pristine state."
Merdon is drafting legislation that would enable the college to sell the development rights associated with the property. The college would get the financial benefit, and the buyer of the rights would build houses in another part of the county.
"Really the purpose is to get [HCC] enough money so they can buy Belmont and not have to develop it," Merdon said.
The bill likely will be introduced in time for discussion by the council next month.
In the meantime, the college is planning at least two meetings after Thanksgiving with community groups to discuss plans for the site.
And students, faculty and staff are brainstorming ways to use Belmont to enhance the college's mission.
"Only our lack of imagination would prevent us from fully utilizing it," Duncan said.