Harford to build therapeutic horseback riding facility near Havre de Grace

Harford County government will break ground next week on a $1 million-plus therapeutic horseback riding facility near Havre de Grace.

Aimed at helping disabled and special needs adults and children, it will be the first significant public development on the Oakington Farm property, part of the former Millard E. Tydings estate, that the county acquired two decades ago.

The non-profit Chesapeake Therapeutic Riding, a private organization based in Abingdon, will relocate to the new facility and operate it, the county's parks and recreation director said.

Chesapeake Therapeutic Riding was advised to become a recreation council, so it could get county funding and a permanent home on Oakington Farm, Parks and Recreation Director Arden McClune said.

Chesapeake Therapeutic Riding offers children and adults with disabilities or other special needs, including brain injuries or mental health issues, specialized horseback riding lessons and other activities, according to its website.

The new county building, which would house a riding ring, is expected to cost between $800,000 and $1 million, McClune said.

The county already has $900,000 in available funding for the project, which includes adapting the large existing French-style barn and other structures at the site and constructing and indoor riding area, according to the FY14 capital budget.

There is budget authority to pursue about $1 million more, McClune said.

Contact approved

To start, the county is spending $420,000 for the project's first phase, which includes design, demolishing dilapidated structures, and building driveways and parking areas, she said.

On April 24, the County Board of Estimates approved a $369,437 contract with Dixie Construction Company of Churchville for grading of three acres to create a pad site for the future building, construction of a parking lot and stormwater management facilities.

Also part of the Dixie contract is the installation of 8,240 linear feet of three-board fence to create three pastures totaling 39 acres.

A groundbreaking ceremony will be May 8 on the farm, at 900 Tydings Lane, followed by a reception at neighboring Swan Harbor Farm, another county-owned park property, at 401 Oakington Road.

"Therapeutic recreational activities is part of our recreational mission," McClune said, explaining her department supports other therapeutic programs, such as a summer program at The John Archer School and a popular monthly dance for people with disabilities.

"This was an opportunity to provide another type of recreational programming," she said of the Oakington plan.

The organization first asked the county for help about seven years ago, McClune said. That was before she became parks director.

Chesapeake Therapeutic Riding founder and executive director Cathleen Schmidt said her organization is contributing money to the project and will be responsible for its operation.

Chesapeake Therapeutic Riding has raised $75,000, half of the $150,000 County Executive David Craig challenged it to raise, Schmidt said.

"We were challenged to raise capital money for the project and that was just the initial challenge," she said.

The riding program is also paying for maintenance and will rent out a building on the property to a caretaker, as well as use a second building for offices. McClune said the county did not want the responsibility of managing the old buildings anymore.

Search for home

Chesapeake Therapeutic Riding has been searching for a permanent home since 2003, moving from a boarding stable in Bel Air to a Havre de Grace farm and, most recently, to a farm in Fallston whose owner allowed the organization to board for free, Schmidt said.

Schmidt said Oakington Farm was suggested but Chesapeake Therapeutic Riding would have had to pay the full cost of any building, as well as repair dilapidated structures on Oakington Farm. Chesapeake Therapeutic Riding could not afford to do that, she said.

The Chesapeake Therapeutic Riding program has five horses, more than 80 volunteers and about 25 riders and clients, serving more than 200 people each year, Schmidt said. She is the only full-time employee. Her salary was $41,300 in 2011, according to the organization's federal tax return, which showed Chesapeake Therapeutic Riding had contributions and donations that year of $60,000, other revenue of $90,000 and expenses of $133,000.

In 2010, McClune's department said it could pay for the building if Chesapeake Therapeutic Riding became a recreation council, which it did in 2011, McClune said.

"We looked at the various unused properties that we had and determined that the Oakington one was going to be the best opportunity," she said, noting it is very quiet, has not been developed for other recreational activities and could potentially be used by nearby Father Martin's Ashley addiction treatment center.

Similar arrangement

The arrangement with Chesapeake Therapeutic Riding is similar to one made by the county with Cedar Lane Sports Foundation, a non-profit that got county rec council status about eight years ago, McClune said.

The county spent $2.5 million to build Cedar Lane Park for the group in 2008.

McClune said Chesapeake Therapeutic Riding's status is the same as the county's other 23 rec councils, noting it simply has a special purpose.

She noted the department also has agreements with groups like Eden Mill Nature Center, Liriodendron Foundation and a wood shop at the Bel Air's Equestrian Center.

"Could there be other groups that look [like this] down the road? I think that is always possible," she said.

Chesapeake Therapeutic Riding "is a valuable program to a group of people," she said. "We feel this is a valuable asset, a valuable opportunity to provide this kind of opportunity for folks that have a lot of challenges that we should be lucky we don't have."

Schmidt said moving to Oakington "is huge for us because we will be able to serve more vulnerable populations and expand our offerings, because there is a lot more room to do it."

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