County, opponents vie over fate of Belmont

Residents fear giving college $7.2 million to purchase estate

April 29, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,sun reporter

The battle of Belmont is heating up again, as Elkridge residents and preservationists try to block County Executive Ken Ulman's latest plan for Howard Community College to use county money to help buy and run the historic 68-acre estate.

Nessly Craig, who lives near Belmont, said he and others "are now extremely worried." The residents do not trust the college's intentions, he said, and fear that if it gets ownership, college officials will "irreversibly destroy Belmont's uniqueness." The college, "if unchecked, will probably run amok and ruin it," Craig said.

"This [Belmont] is a wedge for the college to use to create an additional campus," said Francis Key Murray, a longtime Elkridge resident.

Opponents and supporters of the Ulman plan agree that Belmont needs at least 29 more bedrooms to help the estate pay for itself, but the critics don't trust the college to stop there. College officials want $2.8 million to renovate a barn and a carriage house on the property, partly to provide a larger kitchen and more classroom space.

The 269-year-old, pale yellow manor house, which has 16 bedrooms, has been used as a conference center and for events such as weddings since 1966. It is also used by the college to teach hospitality and culinary arts students.

The dispute was revived at what was supposed to be a 30-minute County Council hearing on the community college's budget Thursday night in the George Howard Building. Instead, the testimony on Belmont stretched the hearing to 2 1/2 hours, with critics lining up to blast the deal, and business and tourism interests joining college boosters to support it. The council members have a month to make a decision.

"It is an incredible asset to this county. Belmont deserves no less a partnership effort," said Mary Ann Scully, a local banker who supports Ulman's plan, which she called "a modest effort."

James Truby, vice chairman of the college's board of trustees, said the purchase now is crucial.

"We believe we're at the pivotal moment in history of the Belmont estate," he said. The estate is owned by the Howard Community College Educational Foundation, which acquired it from the American Chemical Society in 2004.

Also Thursday night, the county Planning Board voted to oppose using county funds to assist the college in acquiring Belmont. This time, though, the board was deeply divided on the issue. The board voted, 2-1, against transferring $2 million to the college, with Linda A. Dombrowski and Gary Rosenbaum forming the majority. David Grabowski supported the transfer, and new board member Ramsey Alexander Jr. abstained. The board voted, 4-0, to oppose providing an additional $2.8 million for renovations. The board's positions are recommendations only.

Ulman is asking for $7.2 million in the capital budget to allow the college to buy the estate and do renovations. The college would provide $2 million in private donations to help make the purchase, and the county would buy an adjacent 13-acre tract called the Dobbin property with state Program Open Space funds that would restrict use of that property.

Ulman's idea for the college to own the estate reverses a plan announced in March 2006 by then-County Executive James N. Robey. Under Robey's plan, the county was to buy Belmont and lease it to the college. Several speakers at Thursday's hearing said they were satisfied with that arrangement.

But college President Mary Ellen Duncan said after the hearing that Robey's proposed use of state Program Open Space money would have too severely restricted the college's use of the property, and that private donors to the college would not give their money to the county.

"Running a park [is] not our business," Duncan said after the hearing.

Ulman said that after a review, he saw things differently than Robey did.

"We decided it made more sense for the college to own the ground. They've had some missteps at the beginning, but they've done a nice job," Ulman said Friday. "In any budget, there are going to be some things people disagree on."

The fight now appears to be back where it began in late 2004, when the Howard Community College Educational Foundation bought the estate plus the Dobbin property for $5.2 million. The money included $1 million from developer Harry "Skip" Lundy, a former college board member.

What preservationists said they first saw as a positive move quickly unraveled as they learned that Lundy had a private deal with the foundation to build senior housing near Belmont. Their trust was further damaged when the college installed a huge metal exhaust fan over the mansion's kitchen - something Murray called "frightful." Lundy gave up his development idea after the dispute became public. If the college buys the estate, Lundy would be repaid, taking him out of the deal.

The critics are also alarmed at development plans for Belmont that the college's leaders have discussed, including a new entrance from Landing Road through Patapsco State Park, construction of a new inn, a large conservatory and other new buildings, and expansion of Belmont's use.

"Please do not reward bad behavior," Bob Seipel told the council.

The estate is close to Interstate 95 but is secluded amid Patapsco State Park. Its use is limited by an easement held by the Maryland Historical Trust. The only entry is on a heavily wooded mile-long private road.

Sun reporter Gerald P. Merrell contributed to this article.

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