College offers revisions to Belmont center plan

Changes to expansion proposals to be outlined at meeting tomorrow

January 11, 2006|By SANDY ALEXANDER | SANDY ALEXANDER,SUN REPORTER

Howard Community College will present a revised master plan for the Belmont Conference Center in Elkridge tomorrow that scales back some elements in response to community comments, but still seeks to expand the use of the property by conference clients, students and community members.

The meeting, at 7 p.m. in the Instructional Lab Building on the Columbia campus, will be the final public meeting in a planning process that began last summer. During that time, the college had received sometimes heated responses from residents of Elkridge concerned with preserving Belmont in as pristine a condition as possible.

Easements on the property limit construction to that which is necessary for the economic viability of the conference center.

"It has been economically viable for years," said Meg Schumacher, a resident on Belmont Woods Road and a member of the Save Belmont coalition. "An expansion like [the one proposed] does not fit within the framework."

But Randy Bengfort, a college spokesman, said the college is trying to preserve Belmont's historic legacy and its legacy as an educational and cultural resource in the county.

The Howard Community College Educational Foundation, a fundraising arm of the college, bought the 18th-century estate in 2004. The property is managed by the college's administrators with oversight from the board of trustees.

According to Anne Johnson, general manger of Belmont, immediate plans include an expansion of the carriage house to include a larger kitchen, classrooms and office space, and renovation of the barn to accommodate a dining room and conference room.

The school also wants to add pavers and walkways to make the gardens more useful for functions.

All three projects have been submitted to the Maryland Historical Trust's easement committee for approval. And school administrators have begun seeking funding and in-kind donations. The work is intended to be done as soon as possible.

Next in the list of priorities is an inn that would include 40 guest rooms, a kitchen, lounges and dining areas, said Matthew D'Amico, a consultant with Design Collective, which led the planning process.

That project likely would co- incide with the building of a new entrance road onto the property, which is currently accessed along the narrow Belmont Woods Road, D'Amico said. It would also require the addition of public water and sewer lines.

A covered picnic pavilion also is in the immediate plans.

A health and wellness building that was proposed in the previous draft plan close to the manor house has been eliminated in the new draft.

The proposed new entrance road has been routed farther back on the property rather than connecting to Belmont Woods Road near the manor house, and a proposed parking area in front of the carriage house has been moved.

Longer-term plans - possibly eight to 12 years in the future - include a conservatory building for larger indoor functions and a "green technology center" to focus on horticulture, landscape design and other environmental classes and research.

D'Amico said the plans include buildings that look like small clusters to be consistent with the existing buildings. "Beyond that," he said, "the buildings have not been designed."

Bengfort noted that the master plan is "largely conceptual. It is a road map."

He said the Maryland Higher Education Commission requires an updated master plan every five years. Each new building will need to be fleshed out and go through an approval process.

Bengfort said HCC wants to appeal to conference clients, providing academic opportunities for students - including those in the college's hospitality management program and continuing education programs - and making Belmont more accessible to the public.

Based on previous meetings and information on the HCC Web site, community members remain concerned about the scope of the plan, said Schumacher.

"It is really looking like a more than 10-fold increase in square footage there," Schumacher said. "The manor house would be dwarfed by the [new] buildings and the major increase of square footage."

Schumacher said Save Belmont members have supported plans for more guest rooms, but a larger-scale expansion is not necessary to keep the center running, as proven by successful years before the college bought it.

Mary Ellen Duncan, president of HCC, said historic buildings are expensive to maintain. She said it is important that the conference center increase its income so Belmont can be "preserved in the highest possible condition."

"We have to serve the people who pay the bills," she said. "We are willing to make this an exciting place to have a conference ... to bring it up to date and bring it up a notch."

She said, "I think it will take time, but people will understand we are not trying to do anything but keep Belmont alive, and truly alive."

sandy.alexander@baltsun.com

public meeting will be held in Room 100 of the Instructional Lab Building, on HCC's Columbia campus. RSVP: 410-772-4814. Information: www.BelmontCenter.com.

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