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‘Not just a piece of property’: Howard residents, Girl Scouts work to save Camp Ilchester from possible sale

It’s been nearly a month since the Girl Scouts of Central Maryland board of directors announced its recommendation to sell Camp Ilchester, one of its four camps in Maryland. Now Howard County Girl Scouts, their parents and environmental activists are working to stop the potential sale of the Ellicott City camp or at least keep it from possibly being sold to a residential developer.

On March 30, the Girl Scouts of Central Maryland board of directors presented delegates — Girl Scout members and adult volunteers who participate in the governing process — with a recommendation to sell Camp Ilchester. Girl Scouts of Central Maryland said one of its consistently deficit-funded areas is property so it started looking to sell Camp Ilchester. If the sale happens, the money will go toward re-envisioning Camp Woodlands in Annapolis. There are also Girl Scout camps in Conowingo in Cecil County and Pasadena in Anne Arundel.

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Since the announcement was made, Girl Scouts and their parents have been organizing and collecting ideas on how to stop the potential sale. On April 11, Eileen Brewer, a Columbia resident and Girl Scout troop leader, and Frances Keenan, who started the Save Camp Ilchester effort a few weeks ago through a Facebook group, helped organize a rally in Ellicott City attended by hundreds to build support.

”As much as our girls have lost, it doesn’t make sense to take more from them right now,” Brewer said referring to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. “We want more transparency from them, and we want to work together with them on this.”

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Camp Ilchester is a 19-acre site used for camping, program activities and meetings. It includes the Clementine Peterson Activity Center and the Caitlin Dunbar Nature Center. Besides Girl Scout activities, other organizations use the spaces as well, like the YMCA that hosts a summer camp there every year.

The board of directors has scheduled an advisory, nonbinding vote on the potential sale for Thursday. According to the Girl Scouts of Central Maryland website, the board will determine the next steps in the sale process at that vote. The website says after the vote the board will engage with a real estate broker who will begin marketing the property and find a buyer.

Keenan, an Ellicott City resident who is the troop leader for her daughter’s second grade troop, said the group is working to stop the potential sale, but if that’s not possible they want to ensure the camp is not sold to residential developers and instead goes to a conservation buyer.

”Given the fast timeline, it certainly suggests to us that they have already made their decision and that the delegate vote is just a formality,” Keenan said. “If the Girl Scouts can’t keep this a green space, let’s find someone who will and make the Girl Scouts see that that’s a better path forward.”

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Girl Scouts of Central Maryland said in a statement Tuesday that currently there is no buyer for the property and the property has not been listed for sale.

Keenan said the Save Camp Ilchester group is determined to keep the area a green space so it can continue to be used for youth programming like it is now.

”It’s one thing to lose a camp because they can’t or won’t manage it; it’s another thing to see that property turned into houses especially if there is another buyer that’s interested in using that property,” Keenan said. “Were these summer camp options to go away, that affects a lot of families.”

Alex Dunbar, a Highland resident, has been involved with Camp Ilchester since 2000. His daughter — who died in 2004 at age 15 — is the namesake of the Caitlin Dunbar Nature Center located inside the camp. He said he has watched countless girls fall in love with the outdoors through his involvement with Camp Ilchester.

”There’s a lot to Camp Ilchester. It’s not just a piece of property, it’s a shame to see it go away,” Dunbar said.

Dunbar said Girl Scouts of Central Maryland has not reached out to him about what would happen to the Caitlin Dunbar Nature Center, which opened in 2008, if the sale goes through.

”You’re giving away green space. We need a green space, not more development space,” Dunbar said. “It’s frustrating. I don’t know what kind of message it sends, but it doesn’t seem like a good message.”

Howard County Council Chair Liz Walsh attended the April 11 rally and represents the district the camp is in.

”It used to be a larger property and in the early 2000s it was carved up for development. What’s left is this [19]-acre parcel blocked in by the suburban development. [Camp Ilchester is] an oasis in the middle,” Walsh said. “It’s important to prioritize and preserve the wooden land that is there; otherwise it just becomes a sea of cul-de-sacs.”

Walsh called Camp Ilchester a sanctuary, one she wants the county to save. Walsh wants the county to use part of its $121 million fund balance to purchase the land from Girl Scouts of Central Maryland. The fund balance can only be spent on one-time uses.

”If we don’t buy it now, it will go to a developer,” Walsh said.

On Monday, County Executive Calvin Ball released his $1.88 billion operating budget, in which he allocated $59.1 million of the fund balance to one-time uses. Walsh is suggesting the County Council ask the administration to make amendments and use more of those one-time funds to buy the camp.

When asked, Ball would not say whether he supported the efforts of a possible conservation sale or what the county’s involvement in the process was.

“We are closely monitoring the Camp Ilchester property and the Girl Scouts of Central Maryland as their board of directors evaluates a potential sale,” he said in a statement. “We understand that [Girl Scouts of Central Maryland] has yet to decide on whether they plan to sell the property.”

The potential sale expands outside the confines of the nearly 19-acre lot, Keenan said. Nearby schools, Ilchester Elementary and Bonnie Branch Middle, both use the extra parking at Camp Ilchester for overflow parking.

Brian Bassett, spokesperson for the Howard County Public School System, said there is no agreement in place related to the usage of parking spaces at Camp Ilchester.

“We are aware of the [potential] sale of the camp and are also aware that the community sometimes uses it for overflow parking when there are large events that occur at the nearby schools. [The school system] is not involved in the operations or the sale of the camp,” Bassett said.

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