Task force exploring horse park is to hold public hearing

December 14, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun reporter

A citizens task force exploring the feasibility of building a state horse park in Howard County is planning a public hearing at 7 p.m. Jan. 10 in the County Council Chambers in Ellicott City.

"I want to bring the public in," said Dr. Michael Erskine, chairman of the Horse Park Task Force.

He said his group likely will present the County Council with a range of reactions and options this winter.

"This isn't a proposal we're proposing or defending," Erskine said.

The task force's charge from the council is to gather information and advise the council members.

Two other counties, Harford and Wicomico, also are exploring whether to try for the project, said J. Robert Burk, executive director of the Maryland Horse Industry Board.

The Howard task force, which met this week at the University of Maryland's 900-acre central farm in Clarksville, is hoping to meet with top university officials to discuss using the farm for the $114 million project should county officials decide to pursue it.

University officials have preliminarily dismissed the idea, and Frank Allnutt, director of the Central Maryland Research and Education Center, which includes the Clarksville farm, told the group why.

To do controlled farm research, he said, the farm's operators need all the land to allow flexibility of locations and topography when specific projects come up.

"Plans are fluid," he said.

In addition, having strangers moving through the property could risk damaging controlled experiments in the fields. A large chunk of about 350 acres also is used to grow food for the university's herd of dairy cattle.

"It's more having the resource available and not squandering it," Allnutt said.

The farm's location in heavily populated Central Maryland enhances its value, he said. The university brings in school groups from around the region "to learn where their food comes from," and officials plan to build an environmentally "green" conference center there.

Michael Potts, a task force member who lives within a mile of the university farm, said his neighbors are generally uneasy about traffic increasing from new homes being built in the area.

"People are concerned that any development would make things worse," he said.

Erskine said the committee would send a letter seeking a meeting with university Provost Nariman Farvardin to discuss the idea.

Meanwhile, the task force has pondered other possible sites, including the county-owned 333-acre Benson Branch Park property west of the university farm.

Clara Gouin, a county planner, said the land was bought years ago as a potential site for a reservoir but remains undeveloped.

Burk, whose board works under the state Department of Agriculture, said the state is looking for a minimum 500-acre site for the horse park but could be flexible.

A formal request for proposals should be issued by state officials after the General Assembly session in April, he said.

"There will be a horse park some day," Burk told the task force at its meeting Tuesday, noting that the department has been trying to get the facility for a long time.

"We've been in it 10 years," he said. "If it takes another 10 years, we'll be here."

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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