Belmont remains an issue

Preservationists, neighbors are trying to block renovation funds

April 30, 2006|By LARRY CARSON | LARRY CARSON,SUN REPORTER

The long battle over the future of Belmont, the historic Elkridge estate now operated by Howard Community College, could be headed for another detour as Howard County officials work to buy the 81-acre property.

Preservationists and neighbors are fighting to block approval of $2 million in county funds to renovate a carriage house and barn at the secluded 18th-century estate, claiming that legal entanglements with a local builder imperil the deal.

County Executive James N. Robey announced March 21 his plan to buy the property from the college foundation and lease it back to the college for its culinary arts program.

Mary Catherine Cochran, president of Preservation Howard County, wants the County Council to cut the funding in the capital budget for renovations because of Harry L. "Chip" Lundy's interest in up to 33 acres on the 81-acre property. Lundy has a contract with the foundation spelling out his rights.

Cochran and her allies fear that if Lundy pursues his interests under the agreement, that could involve the county in protracted legal battles - or even lead federal tax authorities to question his role as a member of the Howard Community College Educational Foundation board at a time when he was involved in a business contract to develop part of the Belmont property.

Belmont was bought by the foundation for $5.2 million in November 2004 after Lundy resigned his board membership. He provided $1 million of the purchase price and paid some closing costs and interest on the foundation's $4.2 million loan.

"The contract grants rights, some irrevocable, to the trustee [Lundy] that presents severe if not insurmountable fiscal limitations for the county and the college," Cochran said at Thursday night's County Council budget hearing. "We now know that this agreement has put the college and Belmont at risk."

Lundy said Friday that Cochran's fears are unfounded.

"There is no intention - never will be, in my view - of going to court on any issue with this," he said. "We want to cooperate fully with the foundation and the county. There will not be a cloud on the county's title."

Lundy, a prominent county builder, originally hoped to construct upscale senior housing on or next to the Belmont property, which is surrounded by state-owned parkland.

"That's all history now," he said. "There will be no conflict with me."

At the same time, his lawyers have told the foundation that it is premature to refund his $1 million, since his purchase options on land at Belmont don't expire until Dec. 31 next year, he said.

"We have some time," Lundy said. "We have a contract."

Cochran warned the council that if Lundy pursues his contract claims on the 13-acre Dobbin property adjacent to Belmont's main 68 acres - and on another 20 acres on which he has a purchase option - "the property will become entangled in litigation and investigations."

Cochran told County Council members that once the title is clear she thinks the public purchase and use of Belmont would be "absolutely great."

Alan D. Ullberg, a lawyer for the Rockburn Land Trust, a group of citizens that wants to preserve Belmont, said: "It's a mess. What's happening here is the county has already gotten into this way too far. The county, or Robey, or whoever touches this will get burned, badly [unless an agreement can be reached with Lundy]."

College President Mary Ellen Duncan listened to Cochran's testimony with more than 100 college supporters and faculty members who attended the hearing.

"The county is working on this," she said afterward. "I'm out of this. This is just a complex issue."

College board Chairwoman Roberta Dillow said Cochran's opposition to the capital funds "was a total surprise to us."

"We don't have any idea what she's referring to," Dillow said.

But Ullberg, who said he was the Smithsonian Institution's real estate lawyer who worked on selling Belmont to the American Chemical Society in 1983, said Lundy's original plans to develop housing could have netted a huge profit.

County officials who attended Thursday night's hearing said they are well aware of the issues and would not buy the property until they are worked out.

"We want to go forward," said Jim Vannoy, a top aide to Robey. "We discussed all these issues when we decided whether to do this. We are not going to purchase Belmont until they are resolved."

Gary J. Arthur, director of the county's Department of Recreation and Parks, said he is within two weeks of hiring two independent appraisers to evaluate the property - the first step toward county purchase.

However, the Robey administration wants council approval of the renovation money to have the funds ready for use. The barn is deteriorating and needs to be stabilized, Arthur told the council last week during a work-session discussion.

The $2 million is intended build a large professional kitchen in the carriage house and classrooms in the barn.

Moving the kitchen out of the mansion would allow removal of a large metal exhaust fan from the roof.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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