Trust issue over Belmont

Residents find that HCC leader misspoke about a $1 million `gift'

March 26, 2006|By LARRY CARSON | LARRY CARSON,SUN REPORTER

In the long battle over the historic Belmont estate in Elkridge, the element of trust, or the lack of it, has been a major issue for community members opposing Howard Community College's plans for the property.

They got more fuel for their suspicions last week.

Despite previous assertions by college President Mary Ellen Duncan that builder Harry L. "Chip" Lundy contributed $1 million to the deal as a gift, Duncan and Lundy said this week it actually was part of a written agreement to develop senior housing at the 18th-century estate.

Duncan testified before the county's General Assembly delegation Feb. 8 that Lundy, a former college board member, gave the $1 million freely as a gift, with no strings attached, and had not asked for his money back.

On Friday, Duncan said she had misspoke.

"It was wrong," she said. "Bottom line, it was wrong. I said an incorrect thing."

Duncan also said that she "told them [the delegation] that at that time because we had offered Mr. Lundy his million in return and he refused to take it."

She added that the builder has been "very generous" and has paid tens of thousands of dollars more than the $1 million to help make the Belmont deal work -- including $150,000 in closing costs.

Lundy said the agreement "was not a gift."

"It was more of a business arrangement," he said, which was confirmed by a copy of the written agreement between Lundy and the private Howard Community College Educational Foundation obtained by The Sun. "We were going to make some profits."

His intention, he said, was to build senior housing and split the profits with the foundation to help retire the $4.2 million loan the college obtained -- in addition to his $1 million -- that was used to buy the property from the American Chemical Society in November 2004.

"After we signed the agreement, it became evident that the concerns of the citizens were not going to allow any development," Lundy said. "We pulled it off the table really very quickly."

He said he has not asked for his money back.

However, Lundy is likely to receive a refund if County Executive James N. Robey's plan to have the county buy the 68-acre estate and the adjoining 13-acre Dobbin property is consummated, county officials said.

Duncan said she told community residents from the beginning that senior housing was an idea being considered for Belmont, but that plan was dropped early, she said.

She said she hopes that if the Robey plan for county purchase of the estate goes through, Lundy will be repaid his $1 million, but the deal is not automatic.

"The foundation and the board of trustees both have to look at that," Duncan said. "There's a lot of questions I can't answer yet."

She said she has publicly welcomed Robey's intervention.

Residents have argued for months that they believed in the existence of a development agreement with Lundy but complained that because no one would show them the agreement between Lundy and the foundation, they could not trust the college's intentions.

Robey's plan to buy the estate using state Program Open Space money would end the issue because no development is permitted on land bought with Open Space funds, said Gary J. Arthur, county recreation and parks director.

Still, Duncan's different statements rankled some.

"We knew it wasn't a gift," said Meg Schumacher, a neighbor of Belmont. "If it was a gift, why the secret agreement? We asked many, many times if we could see the agreement and the answer was no."

Cathy Hudson, president of the Save Belmont Coalition, said she would rather move forward and not dwell on the past.

"I don't understand why they kept it hidden," she said of the development plans.

The lack of trust in Duncan's statements fueled the opposition by stoking fears of new homes on the property or loose controls into the future that could threaten Belmont's chief asset -- its historic integrity and appearance, she said.

County legislators were hesitant to criticize Duncan, whom they have supported, but several said they were upset to learn that her statement to delegation was not true.

"I was less than charmed that we were misled," said Del. Gail H. Bates, a Republican. "I was not happy. I have been a supporter [of the college], and I went to bat for them on this issue, and it doesn't make me feel good that I was misled."

Bates criticized the Robey plan to buy Belmont as being "more a reaction than a plan."

Republican Del. Warren E. Miller also was unhappy with Duncan.

"I am irritated that we had the hearing down here, and she misrepresented what was going on," he said. "I can see why the people were agitated."

"It's very troubling," added Del. Neil F. Quinter, a Democrat.

Del. James E. Malone Jr., a Democrat whose district includes Belmont, praised Lundy for being honest and forthright about his deal.

"He called me," Malone said. "He was very upright and honest about the whole situation."

Malone said he had "no comment" about Duncan's statements.

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