A citizens group critical of Howard Community College's plans to develop the 18th-century Belmont mansion and conference center is urging state and county politicians to deny $7 million in requests for public funding over the next two years, partly in hopes of getting the college's non-profit foundation to sell the 68-acre property.
Despite a chilly reception from the county's state legislators during a delegation hearing in Annapolis this week, the group plans to take its fight to the county Planning Board and then to County Executive James N. Robey, whom college officials have asked for $3 million in the coming year's capital budget.
The citizens group - mainly neighbors of the secluded 1738 manor house and grounds - believes the college's plans to develop the conference center for educational and business use will violate historic restrictions on the property and ruin its ambience. The property is surrounded by Patapsco State Park woodlands.
The group's members say that the college has not been forthcoming with information, which has increased suspicions. In a statement, the group says it wants the place sold to "a suitable buyer ... that has background in historic preservation ... who will honor the limits of the [historic] easement."
"A college campus doesn't masquerade as a Colonial estate," said Cathy Hudson, who spoke for the group at the delegation meeting.
But Mary Ellen Duncan, the college president, said the conference center is so suited to the college's educational and conference needs that she would ask for money to build a similar one on the Columbia campus if the private Howard Community College Educational Foundation had not bought the real thing.
Duncan said the $5.2 million purchase in 2004 was made possible by a $1 million gift from county builder Harry "Chip" Lundy, who also is paying the interest on the mortgage loan for the first two years.
But that helped stir fears among residents that Lundy would want something in exchange, which Duncan said is not true. Lundy's money was a gift, and he never has asked to be repaid, she said, though several college and foundation officials would like to repay him.
Residents also objected to a large, shiny metal kitchen exhaust fan installed on one outside wall and the roof of one wing of the house last spring, and to early rumors of plans to develop homes on the site.
Duncan told legislators the roof portion of the vent has been removed. Plans to build a new, larger kitchen in a renovated carriage house would allow removal of the mansion's small kitchen and the exterior ducts, expanding conference space.
She said the college also hopes to renovate an unused barn into dining and meeting space, get private financing for a new 40-room inn, eventually build a new entrance road and bring public water and sewers onto the property. But she said no residential housing would be built, though the foundation could sell development rights to help raise cash, she said.
"We want Belmont to be able to support itself" while adding to the college's educational mission, Duncan said. If it can't, or "if there is no support from the delegation and the county, the property needs to be sold," she said.
Several legislators appeared sympathetic.
"Both sides have a good goal in mind. I don't think you should get attacked for doing this," Republican state Sen. Allan H. Kittleman told Duncan.
"All of us here are very proud of Howard Community College and of what you've done in the state," said Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, a Democrat.
And Del. Gail H. Bates added a warning about forcing the college to sell the property: "You all as a community are willing to take your chances with whomever buys it? If you sell it to a developer you'll get a lot of additional problems."
But Hudson and five other neighbors questioned whether the goals of historic preservation and a growing college could be successfully merged, which is why they oppose public funding. Duncan has said that next year the college plans to ask for matching $2 million grants from the state and county to help pay off the mortgage and further the expansion.
"Is that how you want taxpayers and citizens' money spent?" Hudson asked the legislators.