Baltimore County’s stealth plan for the so-called “Hunt Valley Gateway Equine Park” (HVGEP) hit the rocks last Wednesday at a meeting of the Baltimore County Recreation and Parks Board. I can’t think of a better fate for yet another Machiavellian scheme by the county.
The Rec Board heard testimony on a petition by the newly-formed Maryland Equine Resource Council (MERC). MERC wants to supplant the Maryland Agricultural Resource Council (MARC) as the recreation council responsible for equine-related activities at the Baltimore County Center Maryland Agriculture and Farm Park (Ag Center) in Cockeysville. MARC opposes MERC’s petition.
The county’s secret scheme included kicking MARC to the curb and standing up MERC as a compliant recreation council before the county unveiled its secret plan for the HVGEP. In my opinion, the county wanted MERC on its side as a cheerleader when it rolled out its ambitious plan, which the county knew would stir controversy. The proposed equestrian park consists of about 1,500 acres and includes the Ag Center, Oregon Ridge Park, and Shawan Downs, currently a privately-owed equestrian center.
The scheme unraveled when the ambitious and expensive HVGEP plan was discovered through a Public Information Act request by Keith Rosenstiel, a neighbor of the Ag Center, a few weeks before the Rec Board meeting. The plan made it apparent that it was the county’s intent that MERC run equine-related activities not only at the Ag Center but also at the entire HVEGP.
That intent lies hidden in the Articles of Incorporation of MERC, which refer to the purposes of the organization as implementing equine-related activities at the Ag Center “and other associated properties.” How clever. We now know that the “other associated properties” are Oregon Ridge Park and Shawan Downs.
Whose plan is it, anyway?
The county managed to keep the HVGEP plan secret for months by getting the Land Preservation Trust (LPT) to prepare it. LPT hired Populous, a Kansas City architectural firm, to draft the plan. LPT paid Populous with a $69,550 grant from the county. It appears that the plan was even kept secret from the county’s planning director, Andrea Van Arsdale.
On September 4th, I asked Ms. Van Arsdale for the status of the plan. Plans such as the Populous study may not be used to guide decisions on capital acquisitions and improvements to county parks until adopted as amendments to the county’s master plan. By email dated September 5th she told me the following:
“Populous prepared a master plan for its client, Land Preservation Trust. It is not an amendment to the Baltimore County Master Plan 2020 and as such, it has not been submitted to either the Planning Board or County Council.”
My interpretation of her statement: “It’s not the county’s plan, hon.” The following day, however, I heard from County Attorney Mike Field who clarified that the plan was prepared for the county as well as for LPT.
Mr. Field added that the county had not decided whether to adopt the Populous study. If the county did decide to adopt the HVGEP plan, it would have to be reviewed by the Planning Board and approved by the County Council as an amendment to the county’s master plan.
In fairness to Ms. Van Arsdale, she appeared to be unfamiliar with the HVGEP plan when I first contacted her. If it seems unusual to you that the chief of planning for the county would not be familiar with the status of the plans for a project with a price tag of $22.5 million, you need to be aware of something: It is widely believed by supporters of MARC and others that equine-related planning for the county is done by County Administrative Officer Fred Homan himself.
Chris McCollum is the county employee who serves as executive director of the Ag Center. He also appears to be a member of the small circle of county employees involved in equine-related planning.
The county made a controversial and unsuccessful attempt to buy Shawan Dawns in 2016. The documents indicate that the effort was led by Mr. Homan with the assistance of Mr. McCollum. In my opinion, it is odd that a lowly park superintendent, not Director of Recreation and Parks Barry Williams, worked on such a significant acquisition.
The scheme unravels.
If there was any doubt about the alliance between the county and MERC it was erased by corporate documents listing Mr. McCollum as a member of the board of directors of MERC. That would mean that, if the Rec Board approves MERC’s petition, Mr. McCollum would oversee the activities of a rec council of which he is a director. That would appear to be an obvious conflict of interest, not that such things seem to matter much in Baltimore County.
Mr. McCollum was a target of criticism at last Wednesday’s meeting. MARC members and volunteers accused him of antagonism toward MARC. Formed in 2003, MARC was instrumental in the 2006 acquisition of the former Mount Pleasant Farm, now the site of the Ag Center. Many of the programs at the Ag Center are run by MARC under its “recreation council” agreement with the county.
Jeffrey Budnitz, who describes himself as the founder of MERC, also took a negative approach toward MARC. He wrote a letter to county officials sharply critical of MARC. The letter accused MARC, among other things, of being “opposed to therapeutic equine” and disseminating information that was “either materially or intentional [sic] inaccurate.”
The attempt by the county to push aside MARC in favor of MERC lost steam when it became public knowledge that the county’s motive was to grease the skids for the heretofore secret plan to combine Shawan Downs with the Ag Center and Oregon Ridge to form a large equestrian center. The revelation of the HVGEP plan exposed the scheme for what it is: Just another attempt to insult, bully and marginalize a group of involved citizens willing to stand up to the county.
The Rec Board did not decide on MERC’s petition on Wednesday and gave no indication when it would do so. The Rec Board should deny or table the petition until the county’s grand design for the so-called “Hunt Valley Gateway Equine Park” is reviewed by the Planning Board and approved by the County Council – something that now appears unlikely to occur.
A better way.
Of course, there was a better way. If LPT had asked Populous to do so, Populous would have solicited input from stakeholders and members of the public on their vision for a possible equestrian park before drafting the plan. Why didn’t that happen? Because that has not been the county’s style. Time after time, the county has rolled out development and other proposals at the last minute, placing community members on the defensive, scrambling to respond. The tactic has worked in the past, but the worm now appears to be turning.
The irony is that the county’s addiction to secrecy and general Machiavellian behavior may have cost the county an opportunity to craft a generally-accepted plan to integrate the equine uses of the three parcels of land without ignoring the legitimate concerns of other stakeholders, including park users interested in non-equine activities and members of the surrounding communities. It is hard to imagine anything of the sort going forward in the near future in the climate of mistrust created by the county.