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Harford to end ownership of arts center site

A circuit of trails and a small parking area have been established on the Maryland Center for the Arts property located along Tollgate Road in Abingdon across the street from Emmorton Elementary School.
A circuit of trails and a small parking area have been established on the Maryland Center for the Arts property located along Tollgate Road in Abingdon across the street from Emmorton Elementary School. (MATT BUTTON / AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

A resolution was approved by the Harford County Council Tuesday to convey a 41.3-acre property back to the trust of Emily Bayless Graham — which granted it to Harford County in 2012 — to help spur development of an arts and cultural center on the Abingdon-area site.

With passage of the resolution, the land is declared surplus, and the county executive has the authority to convey it to the Emily Bayless Graham Charitable Trust at no cost, pending approval by the Board of Estimates, according to county officials.

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Council members had no questions or comments before their vote was taken Tuesday, and they said little about it during a public hearing June 5.

The county administration proposed the transfer to the nonprofit Maryland Center for the Arts at the request of the center’s leaders, an administration spokesperson said during the hearing.

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The planned transfer comes at a time when the nonprofit is falling behind on the requirement that the center be built, or the land could revert to the Graham Trust.

Complicated history

The Graham property and its relationship to the county government already has had a complicated history.

Once the deed is signed in the next few weeks, Friends School of Harford County will be the owner of nearly 66 acres in the Hickory area north of Bel Air on which its new school will be built – courtesy of a complicated swap involving the county government.

The 41 acres are part of a 110-acre tract granted to Harford County in accordance with Mrs. Graham’s wishes after her death in 2007. The wooded land, which is divided by the busy Route 24, was given to the county on the condition that it be developed as a passive park and arts and cultural center.

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The previous county administration spent several years working through Mrs. Graham’s Estate to obtain the property.

Mrs. Graham had multiple versions of her will, which were challenged in court in New Jersey, where she died, according to the former county attorney, Robert McCord, who worked on the county’s acquisition.

To strengthen its claim to the property, the county gave Friends School of Harford County 65.9 acres of county-owned property in Hickory north of Bel Air in exchange for the Baltimore Friends, who were mentioned in one of the Graham wills, relinquishing any claim to the Graham property.

The county conveyed the land, known as the Michael-Martin property off of Route 1, to the Friends at no cost in 2015. That property had been purchased for $1.8 million by the county in 2007.

The donation of the Graham property to the county came with a requirement that an arts center be developed by 2018 on the acreage west of Route 24, or the land would revert back to the trustee. The agreement also gave the trustee the discretion to extend that deadline.

The 41.3-acre property is bounded by Route 24 on its east side, West Wheel Road on the north and South Tollgate Road on the west end. Residential and commercial development border the south end. Emmorton Elementary School and the Abingdon Library are nearby, across Tollgate Road.

The land was transferred to the county March of 2012 at no cost by Thomas J. McGrath, trustee for the Emily Bayless Graham Charitable Trust, Erin Schafer, chief of facilities and operations for Harford County, said during the June 5 public hearing.

With its timetable and initial scope for the project modified, the Harford County Center for the Arts organization is moving ahead with its plan to build a cultural arts center near Route 24 and Wheel Road south of Bel Air.

The trust and the nonprofit Maryland Center for the Visual and Performing Arts Inc., the entity developing the Maryland Center for the Arts, approached the county and requested the property be transferred back to the trust “so that the center and trust can enter into agreements as necessary to further” the arts center, Schafer said.

The nonprofit is raising money to built the regional arts center, which includes a planned 500-seat amphitheater, a 500-seat community center with space for community events, lectures and black-box theater, plus parking and nature trails, according to its website.

A parking lot and trails have been constructed on the site.

“The county is agreeable to this transfer, pending this council’s approval,” Schafer said.

‘Expediting’ construction

Cindy Mumby, spokesperson for Harford County government, said Thursday that the Graham trustees approached the county about relinquishing its title to the site.

“The trustees reached out to us through their attorney and asked us to execute a deed back to the trust,” she said. “The letter we received says it would expedite permits to begin construction of the arts center.”

Mumby said the county was later told by a trust representative that “they were to receive a $1 million grant from the state and the transfer would allow them to move forward and access that funding.”

The arts center property is zoned R3 high density residential, according to Mumby, who said some of the structures planned will require the center’s leaders to obtain zoning variances through the board of appeals process.

The nonprofit Center for the Arts board is seeking $250,000 in state bond funding in an effort to get the proposed performing arts center south of Bel Air moving forward.

Mumby said county government has provided $625,000 in aggregate funding to the art’s center’s nonprofit over the past decade, either through direct budgetary appropriations or, in recent years, through the tourism grants award process funded through the county hotel tax. The Maryland Center for the Visual and Performing Arts Inc. has been awarded $50,000 for operations and marketing in the most recent round of grants for the 2019 fiscal year.

Fundraising continues

John B. Kane, a Bel Air attorney, spoke during the public hearing on behalf of the current Graham co-trustees, Thomas J. McGrath, a New York attorney who represented Mrs. Graham, and McGrath’s daughter, Courtney McGrath Spangler.

He urged the council to approve what he called “a very important resolution.”

“This resolution will allow the trust, in coordination with the Harford County government and the Maryland Center for the Arts, to take the steps necessary to bring the Center for the Arts into reality,” Kane said.

Bel Air attorney Bradley Stover, whose firm Shaffer, McLauchlin & Stover has been retained to assist the Center for the Arts organization with obtaining zoning and development approvals, also urged council approval.

“My client wished me to convey to you this evening that we are very appreciative of the county’s willingness to enter into this arrangement,” Stover said.

He said the nonprofit “has been engaged in significant fundraising efforts” in recent years, plus it has obtained tourism grants from Harford County and “significant monies” from the state.

“We believe this step will allow the process to move forward and get us to that end zone of allowing the center to be built to serve the citizens of Harford County,” Stover said.

Park plans

The county is “already moving ahead with some of the processes” to develop the park on the other 69 acres donated by Mrs. Graham’s estate, Council President Richard Slutzky said at the public hearing. That land is east of Route 24 and south of Wheel Road, across from the Festival at Bel Air shopping center.

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Coverage of public meeting, where plans for Harford County's Emily Bayless Graham Park south of Bel Air were presented to the public Tuesday evening.

The uninhabited, wooded parcel was once a working farm owned by Mrs. Graham and her husband. Plans for the Emily Bayless Graham Park, with walking trails, parking and space for community programs, were presented during a public meeting last summer.

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The design is underway, and the park project is expected to go out for bid this fall, followed by construction in the winter and spring of 2019, according to county government spokesperson Mumby.

The park should have three “loop” trails, with a two-mile, one-mile and half-mile loop, as well as a picnic pavilion and parking area, Mumby wrote in an email Wednesday.

“We are delighted that this green space inside the development envelope will remain in a natural state and become available for folks to enjoy,” she stated.

Aegis News Editor Allan Vought contributed to this report.

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