Belmont A Tough Sell For HCC

By Susan DeFord
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 23, 2006

After a withering public meeting in which Howard Community College officials were called arrogant, evasive and untrustworthy, a beleaguered Mary Ellen Duncan sat outside the hearing room last week at the county offices in Ellicott City. The HCC president didn't expect that explaining the college's plans for Belmont, an 18th-century estate in Elkridge, would be such a public relations ordeal.

"We have work to do in getting our case made," Duncan said, adding gamely, "I'm not a person who gives up easily."

Promoting the college's plans for Belmont has become Duncan's toughest struggle in her eight years as HCC's president. Nearby residents who were cautiously optimistic about the college's purchase of the estate in 2004 are now aggressively pushing for HCC to sell Belmont.

At least one elected official, who once called HCC "the most ideal neighbor for the Elkridge community," is having second thoughts.

"It's too much, and it changes the character of Belmont too much," said County Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon (R-Northeast County), whose district includes Belmont.

The college bought Belmont for $5.2 million from the American Chemical Society, which had operated a retreat and conference center there for years. HCC wants to expand the facility and make the 82-acre estate the centerpiece of its popular new academic programs in hospitality management and culinary arts.

"Belmont is a living lab experience for our students," said Sharon Schmickley, chairman of the college's Business and Computer Systems Division. "This approach to education is seen in many universities."

Schmickley said enrollment in the two programs, now a little more than 100 students, might double in five years.

"Hospitality has been growing faster than any other program that we've brought up," Schmickley told members of the county Planning Board as they reviewed the college's capital budget request last week. "There's a tremendous need in the restaurant area and the hotel area right now."

Opponents said its fast-growing programs will force HCC to subvert protective easements placed on the property 23 years ago to protect the 1738 manor house and tranquil setting in the middle of Patapsco Valley State Park.

"From the beginning the college intended to develop Belmont," said Alan D. Ullberg, a Washington lawyer consulting a group of neighbors fighting the college's plans. "The college is incorrigible. They will never stop trying to break the easement."

The Maryland Historical Trust, which holds the easement on Belmont, has been reviewing elements of the college's plan, rejecting its request to install a paved terrace behind the manor house but approving the renovation of an old stone barn.

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