Pick on someone else, Baltimore County.

The Maryland Agricultural Resource Council (MARC) is a group of farmers and other volunteers who have made exceptional contributions to the quality of life in Baltimore County. It is also the type of organization that the Baltimore County government finds easy to bully. Which is exactly what is happening, as MARC’s role at the Center for Maryland Agriculture and Farm Park in Cockeysville, commonly referred to as the Ag Center, is under attack by the county and its proxy.

MARC was formed in 2003 as the Baltimore County Agricultural Resource Center. It was instrumental in the county’s 2006 acquisition of the former Mount Pleasant Farm, now the site of the Ag Center.

Although the Ag Center is under the control of the Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks, many of its programs are run by MARC volunteers under a “Recreation Council” agreement with the county. The recent application of the Maryland Equine Resource Council (MERC) to form a new recreation council to run the equine-related programs at the Ag Center now run by MARC, is best described as a hostile takeover.

MERC is a brand-new organization, incorporated in July.  In my opinion, it is nothing more than a proxy for the county in the county’s effort to kick MARC to the curb and stand up a compliant recreation council to run equine-related activities not only at the Ag Center but also the 1,500 “Hunt Valley Gateway Equine Park” envisioned in a heretofore secret county plan.

This is a copy of my letter to the Baltimore County Recreation and Parks Board:

September 7, 2018

Charles Munzert, Chairman
Baltimore County Recreation and Parks Board
9831 Van Buren Lane
Cockeysville, Maryland 21030

RE: Petition for certification, Maryland Equine Resource Council, Inc. (MERC)

Dear Chairman Munzert:

I am writing to express to you and other members of the board my opposition as a resident of the county to the petition of the Maryland Equine Resource Council for certification as a recreational council for programs and activities at the Center for Maryland Agriculture and Farm Park (Ag Center) in Cockeysville. I ask that the petition be denied or, at the very least, that consideration of the petition be postponed indefinitely for the reasons described below.

I apologize for the length of this letter, but I believe that there are many facts relevant to your consideration. Most of those facts have been secreted from the public and possibly from this board. Some have come to light only recently. I will begin with a summary of the reasons for my opposition.

Summary.

• Thanks to the diligence of Keith Rosenstiel in pursuing a request under the Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA), a plan describing the creation of the “Hunt Valley Gateway Equine Park” (HVGEP) was made public about two weeks ago. But for the actions of Mr. Rosenstiel, this secret plan would not have been disclosed to the public in time for the meeting on Sept 12th.

The area of HVGEP includes the privately-owned Shawan Downs, the Ag Center, and Oregon Ridge Park. Although the plan calls for general “programmatic connectivity” among the three parcels of land, the clear focus is on creating a 1,500-acre equestrian park. If the board has not seen the plan, here is the link to where it can be found.

• MERC is a brand-new organization, incorporated in July. In my opinion, it was formed with the encouragement of the county administration for a single purpose: To provide the county with a compliant recreation council as the county implements its plan to repurpose both the Ag Center and Oregon Ridge Park as part of a single equestrian park.

If the board has any doubt about the alliance between the county and MERC, check the list of the directors of MERC. Chris McCollum, the executive director of the Ag Center, is listed as a director. So, Mr. McCollum would oversee the operations of a rec council of which he is a member of the board? Maybe Mr. McCollum should consult the Ethics Commission about conflicts of interest.

You will note that MERC’s Articles of Incorporation refer to the purposes of the organization as implementing equine-related activities at the Ag Center “and other associated properties.” How clever. In my opinion, MERC and the county administration did not want to tip their hand about their grand designs for the “Hunt Valley Gateway Equine Park” until after MERC was certified. We now know, however, from the discovery of the secret plan that “those other associated properties” are Oregon Ridge Park and Shawan Downs.

• The petition for certification of MERC puts the cart before the horse, so to speak. There is no need for a recreation council to coordinate the equine-related activities at the proposed HVGEP until the plan for the HVGEP is adopted. I am informed by the County Attorney that no final decision has been made by the county on the plan and that the plan, completed in February, remains under “study.”

If the county does decide to adopt the plan, it will have to be reviewed by the Planned Board and approved by the County Council as an amendment to the county’s master plan before it can be implemented. MERC can renew its petition if and when the plan is approved.

• It is clear to anyone familiar with the history of antagonism between the county administration and the Maryland Agricultural Resource Council (MARC) over the past several years that there is a punitive component in this petition that is aimed at MARC. The hostility toward MARC is reflected in highly critical remarks made by Jeffrey Budnitz, who describes himself as the founding board member of MERC, about MARC. Does anyone believe that hostility would form the basis for a sound working relationship between MERC and MARC at the Ag Center?

The attacks on the Maryland Agricultural Resource Council (MARC) are unwarranted.

The implication of the petition is that the Maryland Agricultural Resource Council (MARC) is not a capable steward of equine-related programs and activities at the Ag Center. There is no evidence to support such a conclusion, and I believe that such insinuations are the product of the county administration’s general antipathy toward MARC.

I further believe that MARC has done nothing to deserve that antipathy other than raise legitimate questions about the use of the Ag Park. The effort to take equine-related activities away from its responsibilities looks a lot like payback to me.

The relationship between MARC and Chris McCollum, the county employee who is the Executive Director of the Ag Center, has become increasingly strained over the past several years. In December 2016, MARC’s reservations about the county’s plan to build the indoor equestrian arena now known as the Kevin Kamenetz Arena helped derail approval by the Maryland Board of Public Works of $2.3 million in state funding for the arena.

The county ended up paying the entire cost for arena, about $3 million. MARC was concerned about the utility of the 9,800 square foot arena, which is too small to host the shows and competitions upon which the horse industry in the county thrives. In fact, the 2008 Ag Center master plan calls for a 31,250 square foot arena.

In 2017, MARC members were among the many citizens who opposed the county’s plan to build a 7,950 square foot vehicle maintenance facility at the Ag Center. That plan was canceled under intense community pressure.

The relationship between the county and MARC reached the breaking point last month when the county, with little notice, fenced off a 17-acre field at the Ag Center that MARC volunteers have invested thousands of hours clearing and cultivating over the past decade. The county intends to turn the field into a horse pasture. The erection of the fence, which I would characterize as a spite fence, sent a clear message to MARC about the consequences of standing up to the current county administration.

Mr. Budnitz wrote a letter to county officials, including Mr. Williams, sharply critical of MARC. He accused MARC of disseminating information that was “either materially or intentional [sic] inaccurate.”

Mr. Budnitz also claimed that MARC is “not supportive of the therapy being delivered at the Maryland Agricultural Center location.” His reference was to the equine-assisted therapy that the Saratoga WarHorse Foundation uses to help veterans suffering from PTSD.

I do not know upon what facts, if any, Mr. Budnitz bases his accusation that MARC is not supportive of the work done by Saratoga Warhorse. In remarks reported by Mike Ruby in the County Crier, however, Mr. Budnitz suggested that MARC made it clear early-on that the therapeutic program was not wanted at the Ag Center, leaving a gap for MERC to fill. In a letter to Tom Whedbee, president of MARC, Budnitz claimed “MARC’s heart is not in therapeutic equine; therefore, it is difficult to be successful in something when the passion is not there.”

Who told Budnitz that MARC’s “heart” was not in equine-assisted therapy? That sounds like the absurd party line espoused by the county administration. Let’s set the record straight: MARC was absolutely correct in expressing reservations about the construction of an arena that appeared to be purpose-built for Saratoga WarHorse.

Because Mr. Budnitz’s criticisms of MARC appear to be based on MARC’s opposition to construction of the arena, I am going to digress a bit more and update the board on the status of Saratoga WarHorse. Saratoga WarHorse is in trouble. Using a poultry metaphor, I will first express my hope that the county’s obsession about attracting Saratoga WarHorse to Baltimore County does not become an object lesson about the folly of putting all of one’s eggs in one (undersized) basket.

The Saratoga WarHorse Foundation.

The Saratoga WarHorse Foundation, founded in 2011 and based in Saratoga Springs, New York, provides what it calls an “equine-assisted experience” to help veterans who suffer from PTSD. It offers programs in Saratoga Springs, Aiken, S.C. and now in Baltimore County.

The Kamenetz administration was intent on bringing the foundation to Baltimore County. I would describe it as an obsession. In May 2016, the county unsuccessfully attempted to purchase Shawan Downs from the Land Preservation Trust (LPT) for $3.5 million. Shawan Downs is a 238-acre private equestrian center not far from the Ag Center.

The terms of the deal proposed by the county, under which LPT would have continued to operate the center, were unusual. The proposal required LPT to make a $1 million donation to Saratoga WarHorse, which would run programs at the center.

In other words, $1 million of the $3.5 million purchase price to be paid by the county was nothing more than a pass-through. It would have been, in effect, a $1 million grant by the county to Saratoga WarHorse, an extraordinary amount by county standards. The county’s generous offer also included an annual grant to LPT of up to $125,000 and a promise to construct improvements such as a large horse barn and a 6,000 square-foot arena.

The county was undaunted in its pursuit of Saratoga WarHorse by the failure of its attempt to purchase Shawan Downs. Later in 2016, the county decided to build an arena suitable for Saratoga WarHorse at the Ag Center. As described above, the county was willing to fund the entire cost of the arena when the Board of Public Works declined to approve any state funding.

The Kamenetz Arena sat mostly idle for a year after it was built. It is big enough, however, for at least one user: Saratoga WarHorse needs less space than equestrian events because its therapeutic activities do not involve riding the horses.

In May 2018, the county entered into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Saratoga WarHorse for the use of Kamenetz Arena. Under the MOU, the county pays for the maintenance of the arena and for the care and feeding of the rotating herd of horses kept on the site. Saratoga WarHorse pays no rent.

. . . .

Saratoga WarHorse is facing a crisis. In July, co-founder Bob Nevins abruptly resigned, citing differences with the foundation’s board of directors. Nevins is a highly-decorated war hero and was the public face of and principal fundraiser for Saratoga WarHorse.

The foundation board had begun cutting costs to try to achieve a sustainable business model. Nevins complained that participation would “start dropping off when veterans stop coming because they’re not getting what their friends told them they could expect.” [“What’s going on with Saratoga WarHorse?”, Mid-Atlantic Horse, Sept 2018.]

Co-founder and principal trainer Melody Squier, who Nevins and others referred to as the “heart and soul” of the foundation’s program, preceded Nevins out the door. She was fired after refusing to accede to the board’s demand that she work as an independent contractor rather than an employee. [“Saratoga WarHorse Board Sues Founder,” Saratogian, August 7, 2018.]

Squier’s departure caused the cancellation of classes this summer at the foundation’s home location in Saratoga Springs. Squier’s termination was followed by the resignation of Program Coordinator Janelle Schmidt, another key employee.

The ongoing “transition” at the foundation is an especially nasty one. Saratoga WarHorse offices are on the same floor as the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce. According to the Saratogian, Chamber Executive Vice President Denise Romeo said she saw Allison Cherkosly, the WarHorse executive director, dispose of Nevins’ plaques, gifts and “tons and tons of paperwork” in a dumpster behind the building before he could clean out his office. Ms. Romeo added: “My question to this day is, who does that?”

The board has sued Nevins for $1 million, alleging fundraising losses because of his failure to relinquish control of the foundation’s website. The damage to the fundraising capacity of the foundation done by the departure of its founders and the ugly publicity remains to be seen. The response by alumni and supporters of the program on social media to the unceremonious treatment of the widely-admired Nevins was intense.

. . . .

Suzanne Berger is listed on the Saratoga WarHorse website as the Equine Trainer for the foundation’s program at the Ag Center. Ms. Berger is the Deputy Director of the county’s Office of Human Resources.

Dr. Cherkosly informed me last month that Ms. Berger works for WarHorse as a volunteer. She also informed me that Gerald Brooks, a county police officer listed on the foundation’s website as the Veteran Program Facilitator at its Ag Center location, is under contract to the foundation but as of yet has submitted no invoices for his work.

Needless to say, a business model that depends on free labor provided by county employees is not sustainable. Less than two months after the upheaval at Saratoga WarHorse, it is too early to tell what is going to happen to the foundation’s programs in Sarasota Springs, Aiken, S.C., and Baltimore County.

We all hope that Saratoga WarHorse survives this crisis. If it doesn’t, we may wish that the county had heeded the warnings from MARC about building an undersized arena seemingly purpose-built for Saratoga Warhorse. In either case, it is wrong for the county to punish MARC for speaking up on behalf of the users of the Ag Center and the taxpayers.

Conclusion.

I urge the board to deny the petition for certification submitted by MERC. If the plan for the so-called Hunt Valley Gateway Equine Park ever is approved, the idea of having a single recreation council for the equine-related activities at the three facilities can be revisited. In the meantime, there is absolutely no reason to certify another recreation council to do what MARC has proved perfectly capable of doing.

And I am going to add one more thing, even at the risk of offending some county officials. The matter before the board contains elements of two of the things that the past administration did best: Carry out the public’s business in secret and punish anyone who stood in its way. I hope that the board rises above the politics at work here and does the right thing for the Ag Center and the county.

Thank you for considering my comments.

Sincerely,

David A. Plymyer

 

 

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