“No question that this is a gem in the heart of Howard County, the heart of Patuxent State Park.”
Those were the words of Howard County Executive Ken Ulman at a press conference announcing that the county will exercise its right of first refusal and purchase Belmont, a National Historic Register property, from Howard Community College (HCC).
Belmont was built in 1738 by Caleb Dorsey, an early industrialist whose family farmed the land and operated forges and iron furnaces along the Patapsco River, near Elkridge.
The property has a long history and looks much the same as it did when it was first built almost 300 years ago. Surrounded by the park, Belmont consists of a manor home, a carriage house, a cottage, a large barn, tennis courts and a pool on 80 acres.
Planned to conserve the history of the mansion and grounds, the property will also be a “nature park for future generations. It will be open to the public throughout Howard County,” said Ulman, adding, “This is too important not to save for the future of the citizens.”
Seemingly for a Song
HCC purchased Belmont in 2004 for $5.2 million, including $2.6 million in county funds. Because of the purchase agreement signed at the time, the county is now able to acquire the 80-acre property for $89,000.
According to the contract with HCC, “when Belmont was sold, we would have been repaid first,” said Ulman. ”Because of the money we already put into HCC toward Belmont, the purchase price for us was less than $100,000.”
The amount previously offered to HCC from an unnamed individual was just slightly above $2.6 million — so the difference for the county was small enough to make the purchase a reasonable decision.
Kathy Resin, chair of HCC’s, board of directors, said that during these difficult economic times much of the college’s focus has been more toward financial assistance for the students.
“The financial needs of our students have increased over the past few years and we have had to adjust where we put our financial resources. At the time we bought Belmont, it was a good decision,” said Resin, “but we are at an all-time high enrollment with more students needing financial assistance.”
“This has been a long process, but in the end, I simply could not allow Belmont, with all its historical, environmental and educational significance, to slip out of the public’s hands,” said Ulman.
With Privilege, Responsibility
Ann Jones, secretary of the Maryland Environmental Trust, said the county now has three unique nature centers: the Robinson Nature Center, the Howard County Conservancy, and now, Belmont. “With privilege comes responsibility. Howard County has both here, with a sense of history and an awe of nature.”
Ulman announced that the Howard County Recreation and Parks department will manage the property and Director John Byrd sees a variety of opportunities for the public to enjoy it.
“We have some work to do, and we hope to bring all the stakeholders together as soon as possible to help us prioritize and begin developing the program and management plans for this spectacular property,” Byrd said. “Failure is not an option with this project.”
Mary Ellen Baker has been named Belmont’s general manager. Baker has been with Recreation and Parks for many years, mostly working on Wine in the Woods. While no final decisions have been made, the county envisions the manor house as a location to be rented out for special events, and parts of the property to accommodate community meetings and gatherings that serve a public purpose.
In addition, housing a few nonprofits, such as Patapsco Greenway and other environmental organizations, is a possibility that is being reviewed. According to Byrd, “We have a lot of strong support. We want to have a busy presence, but with what fits the property.”
“The heart of the activities,” said Ulman, “will be environmental programming and citizen involvement.” To pay for the ongoing costs, he has said the county will consider selling the Dobbin House to raise funds.
In addition, Ulman is planning to propose to the Howard County Council that it extinguish all development rights on the property so none can occur. It would then transfer the development rights to raise money, creating “a density endowment of sorts.”
“We would also allocate money as we would to any of our parks in the county,” said Ulman, who expects Belmont to be mostly self-sustaining, with events and other Recreation and Parks revenue-generating funds, “but it would not be operated as a retreat center. We also already have a great grounds team internally with existing employees to help keep down the costs.”
Burnet Chalmers, a neighbor of Belmont and one of the founders of Rockburn Land Trust, said he is “delighted to see [the sale to Howard County] happening.” Other neighbors at the press conference expressed similar views: that the property would be preserved, but open for the community to appreciate.