Baltimore County plans to build a $3 million indoor equestrian arena at its agricultural center in Cockeysville, where horse enthusiasts would be able to ride, take classes and participate in therapeutic programs, officials said.
The arena, which could open as early as next summer, would be funded by the county and the state. The Maryland Board of Public Works — made up of the governor, comptroller and treasurer — is expected to vote Wednesday on the state's proposed $2.3 million share of the project. The county would add another $775,000.
"We'd like to see it help serve what we think is an underserved market, which is the recreational horse rider. A lot of people feel there's not enough trails and facilities," said Chris McCollum, executive director of the Baltimore County Center for Maryland Agriculture and Farm Park.
The 150-acre agricultural center is located on a former farm in the rural northern part of the county. It has five miles of trails for horseback riding, but most of its existing facilities and programs are aimed at educating children and adults about farming and agriculture.
The center opened in 2010 after the county bought the land to prevent it from being developed into houses. It also is a headquarters for agriculture-related government agencies and nonprofit groups.
The 9,800-square-foot indoor arena would include a riding area, classrooms, restrooms and other facilities. Existing stables would be renovated and pasture areas would be reconfigured. McCollum said the agricultural center would partner with private businesses or nonprofits to offer therapeutic riding, riding lessons and other programs.
McCollum said the equestrian arena would bolster the horse industry in Baltimore County. The county has the most horses of any jurisdiction in Maryland — 8,950 according to the last state equine census in 2010. That's about 11 percent of the total number of horses in Maryland.
The arena would not host competitions or shows, he said, though the county is considering eventually building a larger arena that would accommodate large events.
Members of the agricultural community would prefer the larger arena, said George Mayo, president of the nonprofit Maryland Agricultural Resource Council. He said the council wasn't part of the planning process for the smaller arena and only got details from the county in October, two weeks before grading began at the site.
"The county has been working in isolation on that whole project without any kind of input from the community or from the nonprofit," Mayo said. "There was no public comment, period — no public presentation."
The $2.3 million in state funding would come from Program Open Space, which is funded by a tax on land sales. The money is used to buy and develop parkland around the state.
The equestrian arena fits with the goals of Program Open Space and was included in the state budget, according to letters sent to elected officials from the state Department of Natural Resources, which runs the program.
The county already has a contractor lined up for construction once the money is available, McCollum said.
County officials have clashed with the Board of Public Works in the past, with Gov. Larry Hogan criticizing the county for its pace in installing air conditioning in schools, for not partnering with the state on midge eradication in Middle River and for a plan to sell the North Point Government Center in Dundalk to a private developer.
This week, the equestrian project came under fire from a state lawmaker from Dundalk who questioned whether it's an appropriate use of tax dollars. State Sen. Johnny Ray Salling, a Republican, issued a statement Monday criticizing Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, a Democrat, for promoting it.
Salling said the money would be better spent renovating the North Point Center in his district instead of selling it to a shopping center developer.
"This is another pet project from our county executive and a slap in the face to the people of Dundalk," Salling wrote. "I know many of my constituents would like to see our money go to the North Point Government Center, not a fancy horse center in Cockeysville."
Kamenetz did not respond to a request for comment, but spokeswoman Ellen Kobler defended the equestrian arena as a worthy project for the county, saying it would accommodate therapeutic programs for people with disabilities and veterans.
"A recreational equestrian center will serve the needs of many local groups," she said.