County mulling plan for Belmont

Decision to be made on whether to offer funding to HCC

March 08, 2006|By SANDY ALEXANDER | SANDY ALEXANDER,SUN REPORTER

A nearly two-year effort by Howard Community College to purchase and run the Belmont Conference Center in Elkridge has reached a turning point as the county decides whether to throw millions of dollars of support behind the college's plans.

Depite vocal opposition from Belmont's neighbors and other preservationists, HCC President Mary Ellen Duncan is confident that the college's plan for Belmont - a 268-year-old manor house on 68 wooded acres surrounded by parkland - is a sound one.

"If the county tells me there is no opportunity here, if the county executive says, `We just want you out,' well then I'll have to listen to that," Duncan said. "But he hasn't said that. Until he does, we've got to move forward."

She added that it would be hard to give up on Belmont after all that has been invested. "I guess if you see the students out there and how excited they are, then it's really hard to say, `OK, that's it,' " she said. "[A refusal] doesn't mean I wouldn't come up with another idea. But I don't know what the idea would be at this point."

After scrapping early plans to build senior housing on part of the land and failing to transfer the development rights, the college is asking the county for $2 million toward acquisition of the property in the next budget year and $1 million for renovations there.

The Howard Community College Education Foundation, a private fundraising body for the college, secured a bank loan to buy the property for $5.2 million in November 2004. Harry "Chip" Lundy, a developer and former member of the foundation board, entered into a "private/public partnership" to provide the $1 million down payment and pay the interest on the mortgage for two years.

HCC's plan for Belmont is to combine expanded conference activities and large events with classes for students in the hospitality management program, continuing education classes and community events. The current master plan includes renovations of two buildings, the addition of a privately funded inn with guest rooms, a new "conservatory" for large events and a new access road.

"I think we have the plan and the vision," Duncan said. "What we don't have is the answer about the land acquisition."

As the county executive prepares to hear public comments tomorrow night about his budget priorities, Duncan said it would be "ideal" for the county to take on the job of funding the purchase of Belmont, "so we can focus on the things we do best."

Tomorrow night's hearing comes after last month's Planning Board deadlock in which it failed to endorse the college's budget request. Opponents are expected to again voice their concerns that the college's plan is not in line with historic easements on the property that allow a minimum amount of construction. Some also fear for the long-term future of the site.

"Even if they have the best intention in mind to preserve that property, 10,15, 20 years from now, there will be tremendous pressure on them to build classrooms and develop that site," said Cathy Hudson, an Elkridge resident and president of the Save Belmont coalition. "The county needs to ask, `Are they the right group for this property?' "

One group of citizens would like to see the county buy Belmont and then place stricter easements on the property, said Alan Ullberg, a lawyer who worked with the Smithsonian when the easements were written and now represents the Elkridge-based Rockburn Land Trust.

The county could allow HCC to run Belmont as a conference center and to train students, Ullberg said, but without most of the planned expansions.

Duncan said Belmont needs to embrace new directions to thrive, but acknowledges that the college has not made a good public case for that approach.

Anne Johnson, who has managed the property under the previous and current owners, said even when the operating costs were covered, the previous owner was putting up money for improvements and repairs. Now infrastructure problems from the water supply to new technology need to be addressed.

"Typically when we do a project on the campus, you have several years of planning ahead of time, so you know exactly what you're going to do when you get there," Duncan said. "With Belmont, it certainly wasn't that way. I think the minute we bought it, everyone wanted to know exactly what we were going to do with it. And we had just spent six months trying to figure out if we should buy it, not what we were going to do with it."

She added: "Now we've spent a year and some figuring out what were going to do. I think our plan is good."

If enough public funding is secured, the college would take over ownership of Belmont and the foundation would no longer be involved, Duncan said.

"We want to make sure that [Belmont] is fully integrated in the mission of the college," Duncan said. "We don't want it to be a campus, but we want it to be a very special amenity that people can use appropriately."

She added, "We think we have a great idea. I want to turn over every stone so we can in the end follow through with our plan out there."

sandy.alexander@baltsun.com

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