A divided Planning Board OKs Belmont project

Members criticize county for seeking improvement funds before assessing proposal's economic viability or detailing plans

April 09, 2006|BY A SUN REPORTER

Two Planning Board members have criticized the county for fiscal irresponsibility by seeking money for improvements to the 268-year-old Belmont mansion estate when it has neither completed an assessment of the economic viability of the operation nor formulated long-term and detailed plans for the historic property, which it has proposed acquiring.

A sharply divided board nonetheless voted to recommend approval of the budget request at Thursday night's meeting.

Gary J. Arthur, director of the Department of Recreation and Parks, said he expects an economic assessment to be completed within 60 days, although it is unclear when a long-range plan for the estate will be formalized.

The county last month proposed acquiring the property after a plan by Howard County Community College to purchase and operate the estate prompted controversy, fueled in part by college President Mary Ellen Duncan's false description of the terms and intentions of HCC's deal.

The county is seeking $2 million for renovations and expansions, largely for the college's culinary program. Arthur described it as a "good-faith effort" to show that the county intends to "partner" with the college.

The college said it hopes to renovate the barn into dining and meeting space. The Belmont property includes a center, which holds corporate conferences. The property is surrounded by 10,000 acres of Patapsco Valley State Park forest.

"It seems to me that you're putting the cart before the horse," Planning Board member Gary Rosenbaum told Arthur. " ... You don't know what the ultimate plans for the place are."

Board member Linda A. Dombrowski was more severe in her criticism, saying the county is rushing the process without knowing whether acquiring Belmont would be a sound decision.

"Why the rush?" she said. "I don't see the need for the impatience. ... I see the need for a thorough and complete analysis."

The county, Dombrowski said, has no idea whether Belmont can be profitable or self-sustaining. "It shouldn't become a money pit. ... I think it deserves a lot more thorough discussion," she said.

"I have concerns about approving money without knowing the overall plans of the property," Rosenbaum said.

The Planning Board in February deadlocked on a 2-2 vote on the college's request for millions of dollars. On Thursday, it voted, 3-2, to approve Arthur's request for $2 million, with the stipulation that none of it can be spent until the property is acquired. The recommendation goes to County Executive James N. Robey and the County Council.

Board Chairwoman Tammy J. CitaraManis was joined by H. Gregory Tornatore and David Grabowski in supporting the funding. CitaraManis said that while there are serious questions the county must answer, "I don't know that we can have crystal answers right up front."

She said she feels "more comfortable and confident" that Belmont will be properly protected and preserved under recreation and parks management than, by implication, under the college's care.

"It is the right agency to preserve Belmont," said Tornatore.

Several homeowners near Belmont, who were stridently opposed to the college's plan, gave polite backing to the concept of the county acquiring the estate, although they noted the absence of definitive plans.

"What I've heard so far is encouraging," said Dale N. Schumacher, a principal opponent of the college's plans.

Another resident, Kathy Hudson, urged the county to judiciously control expansion and public use at the estate.

"I don't want it to be loved to death," she said.

Arthur pledged that the county would protect the natural and historic characteristics of Belmont.

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