—– By: Ann Costantino —–
In what appears to be a move to usurp the founding organization of the Center for Maryland Agriculture Farm Park (“Ag Center”), Baltimore County officials are – to use a football term – resorting to a Hail Mary pass before it switches hands with a new administration in November.
With two months until the election, county officials are attempting to certify a brand new council – the MERC or Maryland Equine Recreation Council – which will support the county’s new plans for the Ag Center, even after a new administration takes over. The MERC would be in addition to the existing council, the MARC – the Maryland Agricultural Recreation Council – whose very active founding members created the Ag Center with the county in 2010. It’s not clear how the county plans to have the two councils work together.
But the MARC, the founding council whose brainchild turned 149 acres of land into the Ag Center it is today, sees the county’s move to create a competing council as a way the county can invent the support it needs for plans it has to drastically change the function of the agricultural property — plans community activist, Keith Rosenstiel, caught wind of which prompted him to investigate the county through a series of Maryland Public Information Act requests.
Rosenstiel found that the county plans to combine the use of the three parks – the Ag Center, Oregon Ridge Nature Center and Shawan Downs, a property used for horse racing that sits adjacent to the Ag Center and is owned and operated by a land trust. All three line Shawan Road in Hunt Valley, Baltimore County. Together the properties will make up 1,495 acres for the county’s new – but not well known – big plans.
The county’s vision: to convert the three parks into equine trails, equine facilities and parks. Its proposed name: the Hunt Valley Gateway Equine Park (HVGEP). And the county says that through it, Baltimore County will offer rehabilitation services for veterans and others with disabilities.
But while some MARC members say they support veterans and the rehabilitative services that would be offered as part of the county’s plans, some question if it’s a red herring, shielding the real impetus behind County Administrative Officer Fred Homan’s desire to not only change the function of Hunt Valley’s Ag Center, but to also bring an out-of-state equine rehabilitation organization into the mix which will provide the services on Ag Center grounds. That organization: Saratoga WarHorse.
In 2016, Homan, though the county, made a move to purchase one of the three properties, Shawan Downs, from the Land Preservation Trust (LPT) for $3.5 million. The deal involved a stipulation which would have required the LPT to donate $1 million of the sale price to Saratoga WarHorse.
With the county’s plan to purchase the property from the LPT for $3.5 million, Homan was in effect asking the LPT to divert roughly 1/3 of the purchase price – using taxpayers’ money – to an out-of-state and non-profit equine rehabilitation foundation who, The Baltimore Post found at the time, had only $74,140 in promised one-time and ongoing donations and $532,748 total in assets. The diverted funds would have tripled the South Carolina and New York State-based organization’s assets in one transaction, using Baltimore County government’s funds.
However, no money would be exchanged when the deal would ultimately fall through, while the county’s long-term plan to combine the parks with a new vision did not. Saratoga WarHouse is still part of the county’s vision, with Homan’s colleague, Baltimore County Assistant Attorney Suzanne Berger as the County’s new equine resource manager. Berger is listed as the equine trainer on the foundation’s website for the Ag Center program.
Under the Baltimore County Charter, Homan is permitted to remain the County Administrator until June of 2019, even after a new administration takes over.
The county maintains that the equine facility has always been part of the county’s master plan. Yet, some community members and activists have said the county is going off script.
For instance, Rosenstiel says, “The Master Plan for the Ag Center had a 31,000 sq ft indoor arena capable of handling large events like horse shows, rodeos, dog shows, farm equipment shows, etc. The Equine Therapy building is not even large enough to ride a horse in.”
He said, “They might be talking about the outdoor arena that they are seeking $1.5mm from POS (Program Open Space). That not only is on the Master Plan. It already exists!!” Furthermore, Rosenstiel also says that, “All riding activities should be part of MARC. The large indoor arena was one of the primary reasons the MARC created the Ag Center.”
The plan for the three spaces includes extensive equine riding trails, turf event lawns, event space, 20 stall barns, road crossings, drives, parking areas and open space. Also already at the Ag Center is a greenhouse, gardens and expansive farm land. And MARC volunteers have farmed on the property for years, as a way to educate the public and demonstrate best farming practices, which was the MARC’s intention for the Ag Center since its inception.
With the proposal to certify the new MERC, with many of its members who do not reside in the Hunt Valley area, a council hardwired to support the county’s changes will be sent in for a touchdown.
The MARC has managed the Ag Center’s agricultural and educational activities for almost a decade. MARC members fear the MERC will work to support the county’s plans to change the Ag Center forever – one that the MARC created and nurtured from its inception.
But residents close to the parks, as well as the district’s county councilmember, are fighting back.
Wade Kach, who represents District Three, the area in which the Ag Center is located, says the county’s plan to create a second council is “redundant and inefficient.”
In a recent letter he sent to Barry Williams, the director of Recreations and Parks, Kach said, “The decision with such long-term effects should at least be delayed until the new administration is established in Towson.” Kach has been a staunch supporter of the MARC and the Ag Center and has served as the district’s councilman since 2014.
This Wednesday, Sept. 12, the public will have the opportunity to weigh-in on the county’s plans to certify the new council.
A public Parks and Rec Commission board meeting will discuss the topic of the new commission at 6pm. Interested community members can attend the meeting which will be held at Padonia International Elementary School at 9834 Greenside Drive in Cockeysville.
David A. Plymyer, former Anne Arudel County attorney and Baltimore County resident who supports an open government and has advocated on behalf of MARC members, said in a letter to the Rec Council’s chair in which he expressed his opposition to the MERC, “The petition for certification of MERC put the cart before the horse, so to speak. Officials are attempting to certify the MERC even before the Hunt Valley Gateway Equine Park is approved.”
Plymyer says he was told by a county attorney that officials are still studying the possibility of combining the three parks. If the county hasn’t decided on the merger, Plymyer said, “There’s no need for a recreation counsel to coordinate the equine-related activities at the proposed (park) until the plan” is approved.
Plymyer, who also questioned the county’s decision-making during a heated battle in Towson involving generous campaign contributor and developer, Caves Valley Partners and its county-funded removal of trees on an as-is property it was purchasing, ended his letter to the Rec Council, “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’s still in its way.”
For more information on MARC vs. MERC, contact the Save Shawan Community Facebook group.