New construction for equine ring at Baltimore County Ag Center again sparks opposition

The Baltimore County government has begun construction of an outdoor equestrian ring at its agricultural center in Cockeysville — frustrating some neighbors and advocates for the center.

Longtime supporters of the Center for Maryland Agriculture and Farm Park — commonly known as the Ag Center — say they are concerned the county is pursuing horse-related facilities at the center instead of focusing on its core mission of agriculture and education.

“I don’t think there is this overwhelming need” for the outdoor equestrian ring, said Tom Whedbee, chairman of the Maryland Agricultural Resource Council, an advisory council for the center. “Most of the people I’m familiar with in the immediate community think it’s a boondoggle.”

The Ag Center is a county-owned park in Cockeysville with a focus on agriculture. It hosts field trips and public tours, plots for master gardeners, hives for beekeepers and offices for agricultural agencies, among other uses.

Work has already begun on the new outdoor ring, which officials say will cost $2.5 million.

County officials are hoping to fund 75 percent of the cost with money from the state’s Program Open Space, said Ellen Kobler, a county spokeswoman. The county’s expected 25 percent share is included in the county’s capital budget, she said.

An outdoor ring is included on the Ag Center’s long-term master plan, but was envisioned as a small, 100-foot by 300-foot show ring with a sand surface and post-and-rail fencing. The facility under construction is larger — an 87,500-square-foot riding ring with bleacher seating, shade structures, a watering tank, a wash pad and expanded parking, Kobler said.

An on-call contractor is building the ring, which is projected to be completed in the spring. As part of the work, construction crews have torn down part of the Ag Center’s corn maze.

Whedbee said Ag Center supporters aren’t necessarily opposed to an outdoor ring, but in the years since the master plan was drawn up in 2008, many have concluded it should be moved to a different location. Whedbee said he’s also concerned that building the outdoor ring might make it impossible to ever build a large, indoor events arena that supporters have wanted for years — and which also is in the master plan.

It’s not the first time that the advisory council and others have objected to county moves at the Ag Center. Volunteers who helped found the center and run programs there opposed the county’s decision last year to build a $3 million indoor horse facility for equine therapy programs for veterans and others. It opened this year.

And this month, they for the time being fought off an effort to form a second advisory council that would promote equine-related activities at the Ag Center. Officials postponed a decision on that matter until after a new county executive is elected this month.

But Kobler disputes any suggestion that the outdoor project has proceeded in secret. Officials note a supportive letter from the Baltimore County Farm Bureau as well as notes from a meeting this spring with groups that might use the facility — and voted to support it.

“Far from disregarding stakeholders’ interests, this project has been developed with an open process that incorporated significant community involvement,” she said.

Whedbee said he attended that meeting and abstained from the vote. He said most of the others present were not regular users of the Ag Center. There’s been no public meeting and the project wasn’t brought before the advisory committee, he said.

“My feeling is it is not a community-driven program,” Whedbee said. “It’s coming from the top-down, as has happened in the past.”

Keith Rosenstiel, a neighbor who walks the Ag Center’s trails regularly, questioned why construction of the outdoor riding ring was started so close to an election cycle, before a new county executive is chosen. His theory: “They’re doing it as fast as they can so no one can stop them.”

Rostenstiel questions whether the county is spending too much on the outdoor riding arena, suggesting that $2.5 million could go a long way toward building the larger indoor arena that enjoys more support.

The county is building the outdoor ring without a firm commitment that the state will kick in Program Open Space money for it. State Del. Chris West and County Councilman Wade Kach, who both represent the area, have registered their concern about the project with Gov. Larry Hogan, urging him not to sign off on the money. Both said they believe the project is moving forward because of the interest of Fred Homan, the county administrative officer who is a horse enthusiast.

Through a spokeswoman, Homan said he supports the outdoor ring because it is a “beneficial project” that is part of the master plan and will enhance programming at the Ag Center. And Kobler said it’s not unusual for the county to build a facility before having a commitment in hand from the state for Program Open Space money.

The state has balked before at open space funding for a project at the Ag Center. In 2016, Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot refused to approve $2.3 million in open space money for the $3 million equine therapy arena.

The county ended up building the arena entirely from its general fund, without state assistance.

pwood@baltsun.com

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