Dispute over focus on horses roils supporters of Baltimore County agriculture center

On a farm in northern Baltimore County off Interstate 83, schoolchildren learn about harvesting crops, beekeepers tend to their hives and families flock to cut sunflowers.

The Center for Maryland Agriculture and Farm Park, more commonly called the “Ag Center,” is a 150-acre park purchased by Baltimore County about 15 years ago with a mission to educate the public about farming.

But volunteers who have helped develop the Shawan Road park and its educational programs say they fear it’s being turned into something else — shifting away from farm programs and instead becoming a center for equestrian activities.

“We feel it’s been a gradual repurposing of the Ag Center,” said Tom Whedbee, chairman of the Maryland Agricultural Resource Council, an advisory council that founded the center, raises crops there and runs many of its educational programs.

“What was this built for? For the agricultural industry. … We are methodically being pushed out without any consultation,” said Dan Colhoun Jr., a member of the agricultural council who owns a nearby 210-acre farm where he grows hay.

Agricultural council members say the county has made several decisions that have frustrated them, including constructing an arena for horse therapy for veterans, converting farm fields to horse pasture and commissioning a study that recommended ways to enhance equestrian activities at the Ag Center and surrounding properties.

Keith Rosenstiel, who lives near the Ag Center property, said county proposals have been made without community input, including one that would create a “rival” advisory council at the park — one with a mission to develop and promote equestrian activities.

That new council could be approved Wednesday by the county’s Recreation and Parks Board.

“The county’s attempts to repurpose our parks, in secret and without community input, are very unfortunate,” Rosenstiel said.

The arena and conversion of fields to horse pasture have caused the most angst for supporters of the Ag Center. Last year the county built the 9,000-square-foot indoor horse arena, spending $3 million on the project after the state Board of Public Works refused to sign off on using state open-space money for it.

Members of the agricultural council had supported a larger, multipurpose indoor arena — a plan that had been envisioned in the Ag Center’s master plan. They said they were not consulted about the smaller equestrian arena.

The arena was dedicated in May in honor of the late County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, and the New York-based nonprofit Saratoga WarHorse Foundation soon started its equine therapy program for veterans there. The program uses about a dozen horses on loan from Under Armour founder Kevin Plank’s Sagamore Farm and the nonprofit Foxie G. Foundation who are stabled at a barn on the property.

Saratoga pays $1 per year to use the arena under a 15-year contract with the county. The county is responsible for caring for the horses at a cost of about $50,000 per year, though donations from Cigna and the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association have covered expenses this year. A veterinarian donates medical care.

The veterans don’t ride the retired racehorses; they interact in what’s called “equine connection.” Participants say the program has helped them deal with emotional fallout from their service.

“It was a breakthrough that really, really changed my life,” said Gail Watts, the county’s director of corrections. Watts, an Army veteran, participated in a Saratoga WarHorse program in South Carolina three years ago.

County officials have sent about 40 employees who are veterans to Saratoga WarHorse programs in South Carolina and New York since 2015.

Fred Homan, the county’s chief administrative officer, said officials decided it would be a good idea to bring Saratoga WarHorse to the county. A horse lover, Homan regularly visits the Ag Center to feed peppermint candies to the horses.

Allison Cherkosly, executive director of Saratoga WarHorse, said the county has been supportive of the program.

“Every single Baltimore County employee and volunteer that I’ve met, I can tell they are truly doing what they are doing for the veterans,” she said.

The county recently signed an agreement with another nonprofit, Equiteam Support Services, to provide a similar program with the same horses to a broader population of kids and adults with psychological or emotional issues.

Members of the agricultural council say they aren’t philosophically opposed to equine therapy, but worry about the county transitioning the Ag Center into an equestrian showpiece without consulting anyone. They were alarmed by the county’s attempt in 2016 to buy neighboring Shawan Downs, which hosts steeplechase races and is owned by the nonprofit Land Preservation Trust.

The county proposed paying $3.5 million for Shawan Downs, though the Land Preservation Trust would have been required to give $1 million of that to Saratoga WarHorse under the deal. The offer was a nonstarter, said Ned Halle, vice president of the board of the Land Preservation Trust.

“We never wanted to sell it,” Halle said.

The county also paid a consultant to create a proposal for enhanced equestrian activities at Shawan Downs, the Ag Center and nearby Oregon Ridge Park. A version of the report, issued in August, showed more equestrian-related buildings and a network of trails crisscrossing all three properties and Shawan Road.

The report stoked concern among agricultural council members and nearby homeowners, but Homan said it only reflected possibilities and “didn’t mean anything was going to happen.”

Ag Center supporters remain worried about the proposal to create a Maryland Equine Resource Council at the center. If the equine council is approved Wednesday by the county Board of Recreation and Parks, the Ag Center would be the only county park with two advisory councils.

Jeffrey Budnitz, who would be a board member of the new group, said the horse council would support the equine therapy efforts, raise money and help house out-of-state veterans who participate in the program.

A longtime volunteer with the nature council at Lake Roland Park near his home, Budnitz said: “We are here because we were asked by the county — or it was expressed by the county — that the Maryland Agricultural Resource Council wanted nothing to do with equine therapy.”

The agricultural council’s board voted unanimously to oppose the application to create the equine council, and at a meeting last month dozens of north county residents packed a Cockeysville community center to urge recreation board members not to certify the new council.

The meeting reflected the acrimony that has developed over the issue. Michael McCann, an attorney hired by the agricultural council, told recreation board members it’s against county rules to have two councils at one park, and said councils are supposed to serve local community needs. He argued Saratoga WarHorse is not a locally driven program.

Budnitz responded by extolling the virtues of equine therapy and defended himself against what he said were unfair social media posts about his group.

County Councilman Wade Kach, a Cockeysville Republican, has weighed into the fray, calling on the recreation board to delay a decision on the equine council’s certification until after the November election when a new county executive will be elected.

Kach, who attended the September meeting of the board, called it “one of the saddest meetings I’ve ever been to.”

pwood@baltsun.com

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