College Officials Advised By State Police And Fire Officials To Take Arson Threat Seriously
By David Noss
ST. MARY'S COUNTY, Md. (Oct. 12, 2007) - A small, but determined group of local residents is continuing the fight to get the St. Mary's College of Maryland (SMCM) to relocate its new Rowing Center to a location that does not block the scenic view of the St. Mary's River.
The recently formed Citizens for the Preservation of Historic St. Mary's City
has scheduled a public meeting to discuss the issue this coming Wednesday, Oct. 17, at the Ridge Fire house at 6:30 p.m. According to Gladys Siegel, a member of the organization who is coordinating the meeting, they are an informal group of "concerned citizens." She said the purpose of the meeting is to give the public a chance to speak for or against the SMCM Rowing Center.
State Senator Roy P. Dyson (D-29) has been invited to speak at the meeting. Dyson has been the main proponent in seeking the relocation of the two new buildings, the now-completed Boathouse and the under-construction River Center, which comprise what
SMCM terms the Rowing Center.
Marc Apter, Associate Vice President for Marketing and Public Relations at SMCM, stated that the college is aware of the meeting, but has not received a formal invitation from the group to attend. According to Apter, administration officials are still deciding if they will send an official representative.
According to Siegel, no formal invitations, other than the one to Sen. Dyson, have been extended. However, the meeting is open to all who wish to attend.
Siegel also noted that the meeting would be moderated to maintain order.
This week, SMCM officials have also responded to threats of arson against the boathouse based on statements that appeared Tuesday on the website of the St. Mary's Today, a weekly tabloid publication which focuses on crime and politics in the southern Maryland area. A story discussing the upcoming public meeting included the following sentence: "Many around the area openly state that it ought to be burned down but arson is never a good idea."
The article is also spiked with inflammatory editorial comments against the college and President O'Brien.
"St. Mary's College has duped some local citizens to participate in a 'community group' to make recommendations, much like old style Communists used to operate,"
stated the writer, making reference to the ad hoc committee mandated by the
Board of Trustees to address the public's complaints.
The writer also deems SMCM to be an "elitist institution parked on public property."
The article carries the byline of Kenneth C. Rossignol, owner and publisher of the publication.
No one we interviewed believes that Citizens for the Preservation of Historic St. Mary's City has any affiliation with the remarks made about suggested arson.
Apter said that college officials were aware of passing remarks about burning down the boathouse as a tongue-in-cheek solution as early as late August. After seeing the statement in print, college president Margaret "Maggie" O'Brien contacted state police and fire authorities to seek their advice regarding the possibility of the threats being acted upon.
According to Apter, based on national and statewide arson statistics and profiles of activist-arsonists, officials advised O'Brien to take the threat seriously, especially now that the thought has been introduced to a wider audience.
"We have a real concern for the safety of our students," said Apter.
Apter said that new security measures are now in place including additional security patrols, increased lighting, and electronic surveillance.
The Rowing Center issue came into the public conscience in early August when Senator Dyson released a letter that he sent to the Chairman of the Board of Trustees for St. Mary's College of Maryland, James P. Muldoon, expressing disdain for the location of the new boathouse.
Dyson and concerned citizens have made little headway in getting the college to agree to move the boathouse or upcoming River Center. Muldoon, while stressing that all of the requisite steps in the approval process have already been met, has agreed to entertain the public's complaints.
O'Brien has also been diplomatic in her endeavors to appease both the public and her bosses, the Board of Trustees. She hosted public meetings which resulted in the Board directing the creation of an ad-hoc committee to study the issue. The committee released its first report on Oct. 3.
The report does not recommend moving the buildings. "The [committee] reached consensus on a variety of issues but were not able to reach consensus to either recommend that the Rowing Center remain at its current location or be moved to another site," states the report in the second sentence.
According to Apter, the Board of Trustees will evaluate the findings in their Dec. 1, 2007 meeting.
By all accounts, the college has followed all of the rules and obtained the necessary local, state, and federal approvals for the project. According to college officials, the State Attorney even investigated the process undertaken by the college, at the request of Dyson, and found no legal basis for concern.
According to Christopher Falkenhagen, Chief of Staff for Sen. Dyson, Dyson has also requested that Maryland Critical Areas Commission and Department of the Environment investigate the issue. Dyson even toured the site two weeks ago with U.S. Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.). Cardin will reportedly have one of his assistants at the upcoming public meeting at the Ridge Firehouse.
In regards to moving the now-completed boathouse, Falkenhagen points to the Brome-Howard Inn as precedent. In 1994, what is now the Brome-Howard Inn was moved as a whole unit from its location on Governor's Field, in close proximity to the Historic State House, in St. Mary's City to its current location nearly two miles away. According to Michael Kelley, the Innkeeper, the house was a 19th century building sitting in a 17th century setting. The options were to either move it or tear it down.
"If you can move the Brome-Howard House, you can move the boathouse," said Falkenhagen.
O'Brien may have summarized the problem best when in an interview with somd.com on Aug. 21, she said, "The questions is, 'To where?'"
The Rowing Center, although sitting on public land, was privately funded by donations from the Board of Trustees and alumni, among others. The facilities will be owned by SMCM and thus the State of Maryland. If it does turn out that the one or both of the buildings are moved, it is not currently known who would foot the bill, the state taxpayers or private donors.
U.S. Representative Steny Hoyer, who represents St. Mary's County and is also a member of the Board of Trustees, has been silent on the issue. We do not currently know if Hoyer contributed any of the one-million-dollars which O'Brien told us was donated by various members of the Board towards the project.
Even if the Citizens for the Preservation of Historic St. Mary's City aren't successful in getting the Rowing Center moved, they may be successful in making sure that similar incidents do not occur in the future. The group
was able to convince the St. Mary's County Commissioners to consider a legislative proposal to give citizens a say in future projects at the college.
The proposal, which will be discussed at a public meeting in Leonardtown on Tuesday, Oct. 23 at 6:30 p.m., is officially summarized: "Request the creation of a process that reflects a partnership between St. Mary's College and local citizens that would enhance the future of the College by giving local citizens input towards and a specific role in the planning and design of construction projects at the College."
The Board of County Commissioners for St. Mary's County and the St. Mary's County Delegation: Sen. Dyson and Delegates O'Donnell, Wood, and Bohanan; will review this proposal as the last of a list of 18.
According to Apter, SMCM will have an official representative at the meeting to answer questions.
According to Karen Everett, Public Information Officer for the County, all of the Commissioners are aware of the public meeting at the Ridge Firehouse on Oct. 17. However, no commissioner has yet announced if they will attend. The County will not be sending an official representative, according to Everett.
Senator Wants New SMCM Boathouse Moved, Aug. 9, 2007
Public Dissent Has Little Impact on SMCM Plans For Boathouse; Dyson Escalates Action, Aug. 28, 2007
SMCM Ad Ad Hoc Advisory Committee Report, Oct. 3, 2007