An ambitious plan by Howard Community College to acquire one of the county's most historic homes has drawn fire from nearby residents who fear the college might develop the property.
Residents say college officials have been reluctant to meet with them before finalizing the purchase of Belmont, an 82-acre property in Elkridge that dates to the 18th century. They think college officials are seriously considering building housing on the site. That fear was heightened last week when County Executive James N. Robey (D) proposed legislation that would benefit such a plan by the college.
"You're talking to everybody but the community of Elkridge in your plans," resident Cathy Hudson told HCC President Mary Ellen Duncan and members of the college's board of trustees at a meeting last week. "I would ask that you allow us to participate. We'd like to share the mission."
HCC officials won't rule out building homes at Belmont, which has a manor house and has operated as a retreat and conference center for decades. But Duncan said the college won't complete plans for the property until after the closing, scheduled for Nov. 19.
The college's nonprofit educational foundation has a contract to buy Belmont for $5.21 million from the American Chemical Society, which has owned Belmont for 21 years. The foundation is making a $1 million down payment and has obtained financing for the rest, Duncan said.
Duncan said that she could meet with residents soon after purchasing Belmont but that she doesn't have time before then.
"We have a lot of ideas," she said, adding that college officials have been examining the grounds in recent weeks. "I think I have to be honest and realistic. I cannot close off any options."
Elkridge resident Burnet Chalmers said people living adjacent to Belmont and Patapsco Valley State Park, which surrounds it, have put restrictive easements on 170 acres of their land to keep it from being developed. They've grown alarmed about persistent rumors that the college might build housing for senior citizens.
"We need senior housing, but not in the middle of a state park," Chalmers said.
Last week, Robey's office drafted legislation that would bypass existing annual building limits and allow senior housing "at a public college facility," which would generate no new demand for schools. Duncan said the legislation resulted from her conversations with Robey.
County Council member Christopher J. Merdon (R-Northeast County) said the council didn't have enough information yet, and he asked that the legislation be pulled from its agenda this week.
HCC "is the most ideal neighbor for the Elkridge community," Merdon said. "I'm less enthusiastic about development as part of Belmont, other than extending existing buildings."
The nonprofit American Chemical Society decided to sell Belmont last spring because it no longer wanted to manage a conference center, society officials said. The 82 acres are in two parcels -- 68 acres incorporating the manor house, dining and meeting facilities, and 13.5 acres, which include a five-bedroom home.
"We were looking for a like-minded organization that would protect the historic nature of the property and not engage in any significant development of the property," said Brian Bernstein, the society's treasurer. "I think the college's intent is to do just that."
About 30 of Belmont's 82 acres are protected by an easement held by the Maryland Historical Trust, Bernstein said. The easement limits significant changes to the brick and stucco manor house, built in 1738 by early settler Caleb Dorsey, and adjacent land.
Belmont presented "great opportunities" to the college, which last year began offering hospitality management courses to students seeking careers in hotel and restaurant operations and event planning, Duncan said.
"I would definitely want to increase the business there," she said. "There's no doubt about it."
The only existing access to Belmont is a one-lane road. HCC wants the county to build a second road there.