Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Five feet high and risin'...

It's usually bad form for a blogger to admit ignorance; it destroys the pretense that we actually know what we're talking about.

Well, I've never been accused of having good form, so here's my admission: I don't know enough to actually provide informed comment on any of the stories I'm about to comment one.

First, there's the county budget, which is scheduled to be voted on by the council tomorrow. There appear to be two main sticking points: the fire tax and Belmont.

Three council members -- Republican Greg Fox and Democrats Courtney Watson and Mary Kay Sigaty -- expressed interest in lowering the increase Ulman proposed in the fire property tax, but they did not settle on what to cut to replace the $6 million in new revenue the tax increase would produce. Because the dedicated fire tax must fund only fire department items, any council move to cut the tax would require a companion cut in fire department funding, or an agreement with Ulman to shift funds from another place.

Ulman said he was open to discussion if a council majority desired, but no council member appeared interested in cutting the fire department budget.

Hmm. I wrote about this before and got some helpful feedback, but I'm still sort of in the dark. One thing I do know, however, is that our fire departments have some nice looking apparatuses, many of which were outside my office building yesterday. Sadly, they didn't offer free ladder rides.

The other budgetary issue is Belmont, which I think I know a little more about.

Another proposal to cut $5 million in county funding to allow Howard Community College to buy Belmont, the 18th-century Elkridge estate and conference center, and renovate two buildings had not attracted three votes despite a strong effort by Ellicott City Democrat Courtney Watson, who represents the area. The estate is owned by the college's foundation, which bought it in 2004. But the conference center is losing money and the college wants to eliminate the mortgage debt, while making it a profitable home for its hospitality curriculum.

Watson and critics of the college's program at Belmont want the county to seek state funding and ownership using Program Open Space funds that would restrict what can be built on the historic site.

These arguments seemed compelling until I read this article saying the state wants the county to use it's own money to buy the conference center. What gives?

And since we're on the topic of historic estates, it appears the easements protecting Doughoregan are up and just about anything is on the table.
The end of the agreement with the Maryland Historic Trust, known as a historic easement, allows descendants of Carroll, the Declaration's only Catholic signer, to follow through on plans to develop some of the land to pay for the restoration of their 20-room mansion and 30 other historic buildings while preserving family ownership.

The land covered by the easement is zoned for about 450 homes, and nearby residents say they worry that such development would increase traffic and crowd schools.

"This will probably be the most high-profile easement that ever expired," said Richard Brand, chief financial officer of the Maryland Historic Trust in Annapolis. "Every superlative you can imagine can be used on this property."
It appears there are a few options for the land:
  1. Develop according to existing zoning and infrastructure -- roughly 450 homes, each with well and septic.
  2. Extend public water and sewer to the property and develop the same amount of houses (I think) but cluster them as far as possible from the manor itself (clustering would not be possible without public infrastructure).
  3. Sell the development rights to the county for up to $40,000 per acre.
  4. Some combination of development and preservation.
Now, the story says that "[c]ounty officials have said the family wants to raise at least $20 million," which is certainly possible if the Carrolls get the maximum preservation rate. But, surely, $36 million is less than what they could get from developers.

Such calculations, however, fail to account for the myriad other issues involved in this story. And something tells me there's more to this than what we're reading in the papers.

I'll leave it to you to fill in the blanks.


numbers.girl said...

Here are my issues with the property and its owners:
1. The quote in the paper made it sound as though the owners don't currently have an estate plan, and how devastating the effects would be if one were to die unexpectedly. For people with some much net worth (even if it isn't liquid), wouldn't they have thought of this long ago? Especially considering the designation of "the only property of a declaration signer still in family hands"?
2. If they were truly interested in preservation, wouldn't they have sold the development rights as soon as that became an option?
3. How much sympathy can we have and how much should the government bail out a family who has failed to maintain their ginormous mansion over the years?

Belmont Background said...

Can you say politics?? The letter from DNR gives the council an out today, while also allowing negotiations to proceed. The DNR purchase could still happen-at least DNR is willing for it to happen. Unfortunately, as Jim Robey found out last year and as it looks currently with the DNR state funding offer, the college doesn't want to sell. Why not? Because they don't want to acknowledge any upper limit as to what they can do with the Belmont property. They are landbanking for their future expansions.
The question of the day is who has any control over the community college? The answer unfortunately is no one..

Anonymous said...

If DNR is so susceptible to politics and subordinate to the community college, why is it better for them to have it? It's only "politics" when it's not the answer people wnat to hear. When they wanted to buy it, it was visionary. When they said it will take a while and it's best to proceeed with current plans at this time, it's politics.

Anonymous said...

I think not increasing the 2 cents in the west keeps everything the same levels but raises everyone a penny across the county and still pays for all of the fire budget. It actually seems like a win-win.

Anonymous said...

The Post discusses Howard County's budget in an article about Anne Arundel County.

Kudos to Courtney Watson, who would be a great CE, for standing up to Ulman on HCC. Maybe Ulman feels beholden to HCC president since he supported his campaign.

Anonymous said...

The HCC President is a woman...

Anonymous said...

Ulman has a LOT of people to repay.