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County finalizes purchase of historic Belmont estate

Howard County has finalized its decision to purchase the historic 81-acre Belmont estate in Elkridge and "preserve it as a history and nature park for all future generations," County Executive Ken Ulman announced Wednesday, May 30.

The county submitted an agreement to purchase Belmont from Howard Community College in late June of 2011, which was signed Sept. 7. However, the final decision was held up while the county conducted an environmental study and looked at the feasibility of operating the property.

"I wanted to better understand it before we move forward," Ulman said after a news conference May 30.

The environmental studies revealed some contamination in the ground and aspects of the manor house that the county needs to clean up.

Ulman previously said he had been wary of purchasing the property because it can be expensive to maintain.

"This will not be operated as a retreat center the way it was, which means the expenses will come down dramatically," Ulman said Wednesday, noting the county might eliminate some of the property's more costly amenities, such as the gym and swimming pool.

The property will still be rented out for weddings and special events, but hosts will have to bring in their own staff to run them.

The county is expected to spend about $200,000 to $250,000 a year to operate Belmont as a historical nature park. Ulman said he plans to open Belmont to the public this fall "on a limited basis," but the manor house and the remainder of the property will not be fully functional until fall of 2013.

John Byrd, director of the county's Department of Recreation and Parks, which will be in charge of the property, said the county will form an advisory group to help decide what uses to incorporate into the park. Some ideas include environmental and outdoor education components, visual arts and crafts, summer theater and drama classes and colonial reenactments.

Ulman said plans to revitalize Belmont do not currently include any major changes to the existing entrance, a long road leading up to the manor house that would be a tight squeeze for two cars, or parking.

"We really don't envision thousands and thousands of people coming in here," he said.

Because the county gave the college $2.6 million to use toward the purchase and renovation of the estate, it had the right of first refusal to buy the property. When the college received an offer of $2.7 million from a potential buyer last year, Ulman announced his intent to exercise that right, saying at the time he couldn't let "one of the few historic gems that's left in the county" go at such a low price.

The college's Educational Foundation paid $5.2 million when it bought the 18th-century estate from the American Chemical Society in 2004. Faced with budgetary strains, the college put the Belmont estate on the market in September 2009. HCC had planned on operating it until a buyer was found, but when the economic recession caused a decline in business, the college closed the center on Dec. 31, 2010.

After forgiving the college of its debt, the county will only have to pay $89,000 to buy the property. Settlement is expected this summer.

County Council member Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat whose district includes Belmont, said she proposed five years ago that the county purchase the historic estate with open space money and use it as a park, so she's pleased with Ulman's decision.

"He is to be commended for that to save this historic property for the Howard County citizens because it is a multigenerational effort," Watson said, noting she hopes "future generations can enjoy this property."

As a part of the plan to raise revenue to help pay for maintenance and upkeep, the county will amend Watson's 2008 neighborhood preservation bill, so it can sell the development rights of Belmont. Developers can buy the rights for limited use elsewhere in the county.

"The idea is that we would extinguish all development rights here but also raise some money," Ulman said, noting the sale of Belmont's development rights could raise between $3 million and $5 million.

The county also plans to sell the 13-acre Dobbin property that is a part of the estate. Ulman said the land and the house on it are appraised at about $1 million.

Once that portion of the estate is sold, that would leave the county with 68 acres to use for the park.

Several Elkridge residents and representatives of county historical and environmental groups were on hand at the news conference Wednesday and seemed pleased with the county's announcement to preserve the estate as a park.

Cathy Hudson, the Elkridge resident who headed the Save Belmont Coalition, said she is glad the county plans to retain the historic and environmental elements of the estate, and open the property to the public.

"It will be a good partnership with the county, neighbors and environmental groups," she said.

Fred Dorsey, president of Preservation Howard County, also said he is glad Belmont, which he noted "is really only second to Doughoregan as far as historical significance in the county," will be open to the public.

"There's a lot of confidence in what they're going to be able to do," Dorsey said, but noted that he's "concerned about the resources and the funding that's going to be available to them."

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