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Land Trust Struggles to Preserve Colonial Site from College Developer

March 2009 | Baltimore, MD

Rockburn Land Trust has an on-going legal challenge to save Colonial Belmont in Baltimore, Maryland. Development of the historic site by a community college threatens the adjacent conserved land by its extension of roads and utilities. While this is not a typical land trust challenge, it is does provide many lessons, including:

  1. Maintain a broad base of community information gathering
  2. Rapidly mobilize citizen voices
  3. Negotiate limits on pre-existing encumbrances
  4. Understand your organizational capacity
  5. Share the legal burden with others

 

Authors

Dale N. Schumacher- 6581 Belmont Woods, Elkridge MD. 21075; DaleNSchumacher@aol.com. He was a member of the Land Trust Standards and Practices Program Design Steering Committee. His family properties are under perpetual Maryland Environmental Trust easements.

Meg Schumacher 6589 Belmont Woods, Elkridge MD. 21075; her family property is under a perpetual Maryland Environmental Trust easement.

Photos available from www.SaveBelmont.org, a Rockburn Land Trust site

 

Belmont – the Developer’s Focus

BelmontBelmont, a Colonial mansion built in 1738, is situated at the crest of a hill amidst 82 undeveloped acres 15 minutes from Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport. It is completely surrounded by the Patapsco State Park and private land under perpetual Maryland Environmental Trust (MET) and Rockburn Land Trust (RLT) conservation easements. A critical point is that access to Belmont is over private land trust conserved land or state park land via a 14 foot wide private right of way. There is no public road access.

In 1962, the Bruce family,[1] owners of Belmont, sold Belmont and its 360 acres to the Smithsonian Institution, who turned it into a Retreat Center. In 1983, the Smithsonian Institution placed a Maryland Historical Trust easement on a small portion of the property to protect the historic mansion. Early in 2004, the Columbia, Maryland Howard Community College and its foundation purchased the 82 acre property.

 

Howard Community College and “three development schemes”

The preservation community was initially pleased by the community college/foundation purchase. However, soon disquieting events occurred and troubling information emerged. The community college arranged with a then college foundation board member (a prominent and respected real estate developer) to provide $1 million of Belmont’s $5.1 million purchase price (the relatively low price for 82 acres reflected lack of public access and public utilities) and mortgage payments for two years. Many months passed before all the details of the arrangement between the college and the developer became public. In return, the developer was to receive 33 acres of Belmont’s 82 acres (20 acres of wooded Patapsco State Park in a land swap for 20 acres of Belmont’s pasture property and 13 additional acres) to develop up to 118 age-restricted condominiums and up to 26 additional homes.

Belmont AerialA substantial portion of the developer’s profits would be shared with the community college. The developer resigned from the foundation board when the Belmont purchase occurred. The preservation community was told it was a done deal. In short order, County legislation was proposed allowing the college’s condominium project to bypass county adequate public facilities requirements. Then, a multi-million dollar county capital project was proposed to provide additional road access, water, and sewerage to the secluded Belmont Retreat Center inholding. The proposed road was to activate an existing but never used 60-foot, 3-acre, right-of-way through the wooded Patapsco State Park – a major recreational area for Baltimore. The website, www.SaveBelmont.org, shows pictures of Belmont, selected press information, correspondence, a map and the foundation development agreement. Land use in Howard County is now the subject of a citizen’s law suit in Federal District Court.[2]

Lesson 1 – Maintain a broad base of community information gathering. The County bureaucracy was involved in this agreement, but individual employees alerted the conservation community.

When the community college and its foundation brought its plans for 118 condominiums and a land swap to the Maryland Historical Trust, public, political, legal and environmental pressure caused a close reading of the 1983 Smithsonian–historical trust easement. The Maryland Historical Trust made the determination that condominiums are inconsistent with their conservation easement, and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources affirmed that a swap of Belmont field acreage for mature state park forest for 118 condominium sites was inconsistent with their mission.

Lesson 2 – Rapidly mobilize citizen voices. Public appeals to state and county agencies and to state and county elected officials are often effective.

The community college then redirected its development plans; the Belmont site and its pristine Colonial mansion was slated for a major academic development with proposed building footprints of over 100,000 square feet and a major parking area. The development focus was to provide a student hospitality training program and evolve colonial Belmont as a commercial conference center. Because the 60-foot right-of-way through the wooded Patapsco State Park failed to gain approval from the Department of Natural Resources, the only access to Belmont for Howard Community College is via a 14-- foot wide 100 year old private drive across a Maryland Environmental Trust conserved property. The owner of this MET property (and a founding Rockburn Land Trust Board member) has filed a law suit[3] against the College for non-compliance with use of an existing Right of Way covenant.

Lesson 3 – Negotiate pre-existing encumbrances if you plan to perpetually preserve an area to reduce conservation conflicts. This covenant was negotiated with a previous owner. The Community College as a governmental entity takes the position that it is not obligated to meet the Covenant’s requirements.

 

Rockburn Land Trust Response

The conservation stewardship challenges facing the RLT were and continue to be substantial. The RLT has no staff and limited financial reserves in its stewardship fund. RLT is a third party to the historical trust conservation easement and would need to challenge the owner – and counter the well-established, well-funded and politically-connected community college and its development-oriented foundation. Thus, the RLT used a “complex adaptive system” approach and established the SaveBelmont initiative.

Lesson 4 – Understand your organizational capacity. Your land trust resources must match its operational framework – you may have few options in a legal challenge without adequate staff and financial reserves.

 

Complex adaptive systems

Complex adaptive systems focus on self-organization, interdependencies, unpredictability and non-linearity of the situation.[4] Complex adaptive systems rely on several principles (additional details are available on request regarding this approach):

1. Build a “good enough” vision. Complex situations, by their nature, prevent the development of a detailed plan.

2. Balance data and intuition, planning and acting, safety and risk with due consideration to each. It is best to establish minimum specifications and general senses of direction that provide for appropriate autonomy for individuals to self-organize and adapt as time goes by.

3. Foster the “right” degree of information, recognizing that creating self-organization occurs when there is sufficient information flow, diversity of individuals, connectivity and a low power differential (i.e. non hierarchical relationship) among committed individuals.

4. Work with attention to quandaries associated with the challenge. That is, do not attempt to smooth over differences in approaches or priorities among members. Examine them systematically and then move forward. Core group discussions need to be straightforward and open, with attention focused on the vision rather than individual agendas.

5. Prefer action i.e. balance action and planning, but do not over plan.

6. Tap into both formal and informal sources of information.

7. Start small and build linkages to individuals and organizations with the idea of eventually linking these several organizations.

8. Recognize that individuals in an activist group will both cooperate and compete to achieve their own individual agendas. Have leadership strategies and agreements around common goals and values to offset that temptation to compete. Leadership needs to relate to multiple organizations’ goals and values so not all land trusts have the capacity for this.

 

Stewardship Fund

Both through fundraising and member donations, the RLT was initially able to afford extensive legal advice regarding its third-party standing, the intricacies of the historical trust easement and county zoning regulations regarding uses of Belmont’s “retreat center” zoning.

  • The 100 condominium schemes have been stopped.
  • The 60-- foot ROW through Patapsco State Park has been stopped.
  • The private funded law suit (Howard County Circuit Court 13-C-07-069042 DJ) is in process by the land owner with the 14 foot ROW Covenant affected by the Community College use of Belmont.
  • A challenge to the transfer of a liquor license failed – even though students are participants in the hospitality program the County Liquor Board felt this was not sufficient reason to limit alcohol use.
  • The RLT and several neighbors have initiated a zoning violation complaint proffering that the Community College commercial use for dinners, a bed and breakfast and weddings is not an essential government function; therefore the College use should come under County zoning regulations.
  • While the RLT, the County Planning Board, the League of Women Voters, the Maryland Environmental Trust, the Audubon Society County questioned funding to support development of Belmont, both the County Executive and a divided County Council decided to provide the College sufficient funding to purchase the property. No civic, historic or environmental group supported the college’s funding request.
  • The Community College President who envisioned the development of this land locked 82 acre historic parcel has retired.
  • In the past five years we have spent (both RLT and private law suits) over $200,000.
  • From Community College financial statements, it is readily estimated that the College and its Foundation have spent over $500,000 in legal fees and over $1.3 million buying out the would be condominium developer. The Belmont Conference center has lost over $300,000 from operations since being acquired by the Community College.

 

History of Rockburn Land Trust

The Rockburn Land Trust was established in 1989 with guidance from the Maryland Environmental Trust. The RLT is a volunteer land trust based in Howard County, Maryland in the fast-growing Baltimore/Washington corridor. Before the real estate bubble broke buildable home sites range from $75,000 to $350,000 per acre.

The RLT has successfully worked with MET to preserve approximately 20 parcels of land amounting to almost 200 acres. In 1996, one of these easement donors accused the MET of “fraud in the inducement” in securing their 1989 easement. RLT members worked closely with the MET and the Maryland Attorney General’s office and this case was resolved unanimously in favor of the MET by the Maryland Court of Appeals.[5] The RLT incurred modest cost related to this action (less than $20,000) since the cost burden fell on the Maryland Department on Natural Resources.

Lesson 5 – When you can, work with governmental agencies so they bear the legal burden.

 

Conservation Defense Insurance

Easement enforcement and defense increasingly challenges land trusts. Enforcement is complicated and more so if the land trust is a third party to the easement.[6] The Land Trust Alliance (Alliance) is investigating developing insurance to help cover litigation costs that could be valuable in some of these situations.[7] Would Defense Insurance have made a difference if it had been in existence in 2004? In our opinion a resounding YES.

  1. Uncertainty would have been reduced. While our forefathers “with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence” pledged “to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor,” most Americans today are sufficiently risk adverse that reliance on good solid legal expertise and experience would better position a land trust for a defensive action.
  2. Sources of Legal support – conservation defense is an arcane area and collective insurance would provide a nexus for sharing, building and networking expertise.
  3. The opposition (in our case developers) gets a stronger message if a formal Defense and Stewardship Fund has a basis in an insurance program. The possibility that such support was in existence may have caused the developers to hesitate.
  4. Settlement expertise would be useful. In our situation we have a clash of values: RLT is committed to conservation and historic preservation and the Community College is committed to building a campus and sufficient commercial activity to build a positive bottom line.
  5. From a business perspective, approaching donors for a targeted Defense and Stewardship Fund makes soliciting donations more feasible especially if a land trust can also point to a collective insurance program for back-up resources.

 

We look forward to the Alliance implementing the Conservation Defense Insurance program.

Disclosure: Dale N. Schumacher is the plaintiff in Howard County Circuit Court 13-C-07-069042 DJ. The Defendants are Howard Community College and the Howard Community College Educational Foundation.


[1] Lankford ND. The Last American Aristocrat: The Biography of David K.E. Bruce, 1898-1977. Boston: Little Brown & Co, 1996.

[2] Simonsen, Derek. Residents sue county over land-use decisions. Explore Howard web site. http://www.explorehoward.com/news/15929/residents-sue-county-over-land-use-decisions/ Posted 2/20/09. Accessed 2/23/09.

[3] Howard County Circuit Court 13-C-07-069042 DJ

[4] Zimmerman B, C Lindberg, P Plsek. Edgeware: Insights from Complexity for Science for Health Care Leaders. Irving, Texas: VHA Inc., 1998.

[5] Md. Envtl. Trust v. Gaynor, 780 A.2d 1193 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 2001), rev'd, 803 A.2d 512 (Md. 2002).

[6] Jay, JE. *757 Third-Party Enforcement of Conservation Easements. Spring 2005;29 Vt. L. Rev. 757.

[7] Betterley Risk Consultants. An Analysis of Historic Data Relating to Easement Violations, Land Protection and Defense Insurance Feasibility. September 9, 2008.

Photos of Colonial Mansion and aerial view of Belmont surrounded by state park fields, forest and conservation properties courtesy of Rockburn Land Trust

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