Process to buy center begins

County's plans for Belmont start with two appraisals of adjacent property

March 18, 2007|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,sun reporter

A year after county officials announced plans to purchase the Belmont Conference Center in Elkridge, the new administration is taking some of the first steps in the process.

County Executive Ken Ulman said two appraisals began this month on a 13-acre parcel and house known as the Dobbin property, which is nearby but physically separated from Belmont's other 68 acres and the 18th-century manor house.

The entire property was purchased by the Howard Community College Educational Foundation in November 2004 with plans to continue its use as a conference center and to expand the college's hospitality management and other educational programs.

Since then, the foundation has been seeking ways to pay off its debt on the $5.2 million price while honoring easements on the property and responding to public concerns about protecting the historic and environmental nature of the site.

While Ulman still is considering numerous issues related to purchasing the full Belmont property, he said, "We think [Dobbin] is an important piece of the puzzle. It's one piece that I frankly want to make sure is protected and not developed."

A total of $12,000 for two appraisals -- which are expected to take 45 to 60 days -- and funding for the purchase of the Dobbin property are available in the Department of Recreation and Parks' land acquisition budget, said Gary J. Arthur, director of the department.

That budget uses funds from the state's Project Open Space that come with prohibitions on development and other restrictions intended to keep properties preserved for outdoor recreation, Arthur said.

The purchase of Dobbin, which is being supported by Howard Community College, also would help bring to a close an agreement between the educational foundation and one of its former board members, Harry L. "Chip" Lundy, that raised concerns among citizens and legislators when the county discussed purchasing Belmont last year.

Lundy provided $1 million of the $5.2 million purchase price, paid some closing costs and covered the interest on the mortgage. He received rights to purchase 33 acres, including the Dobbin property, to build senior housing.

The plan was intended to generate funds to pay for Belmont, Lundy said, but it became obvious that the building project would not be possible.

To help the college pursue its vision for Belmont, he said, he plans to give up his claims to the property and conclude his agreement with the foundation if the county chooses to purchase the property.

"Probably everyone involved would like to see Mr. Lundy out of the situation," Ulman said. A county purchase "would extinguish his claim to it, it would preserve the property, it would have some folks breathing a sigh of relief."

Lundy, who would receive his initial $1 million payment back from the foundation, said his original intent was to use private capital instead of taxpayer dollars to obtain Belmont for the college, "but if it's better for the community to use taxpayer dollars, then at the end of the day, the college will benefit."

Citizens, preservationists and lawmakers are discussing whether taxpayer dollars are preferable.

The possible purchase of the Dobbin property "needs to be part of the big picture," said Cathy Hudson, chairwoman of the Save Belmont Coalition.

"Hopefully, it would be part of a comprehensive settlement," she said, one that includes input from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Maryland Historical Trust and that respects the environmental sensitivity of the area.

In addition to the purchase of the Dobbin property, Howard Community College President Mary Ellen Duncan said, the college is seeking $2.1 million in the coming budget cycle to retire the mortgage on the entire property, with plans for the college to match that amount.

She said she would like to see ownership of Belmont settled before the payments increase significantly on the foundation's loan, which has required only that the interest be paid for three years.

She also wants to see the county move ahead with renovations to the barn and carriage house that would improve facilities for events and for teaching culinary classes. The county budgeted $2 million to the Department of Recreation and Parks for those projects last year, but it cannot be used unless the county owns the property.

Meanwhile, the county Planning Board, which serves an advisory role to the county executive and the County Council, said this month that it believes the county should not spend any money on Belmont until specific plans are provided.

"Currently, too many unknowns and loose ends exist," the board wrote in a recommendation that was approved, 3-0. "The Board believes the County and HCC need to provide detailed information as to how Belmont's acquisition and operation fit into HCC's Master Plan, as well as how operating and maintenance costs would be financed without jeopardizing Belmont's historic preservation or how the use's negative impact on neighboring properties is minimized."

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