Sugarloaf Mountain, a popular Maryland attraction for hiking, nature views and weddings, has been closed for nearly a month after an attempted break-in at the mansion on the mountain in August.
The property owners, Stronghold Inc. – based in Frederick County – are hoping they can reopen in about two to three weeks’ time.
John Webster, the president of the Board of Trustees at Stronghold – the non-profit company that has privately owned and operated the 3,400-acre Sugarloaf Mountain and the Strong Mansion for about 70 years – said that the break-in gave them the opportunity to reassess security and safety on the mountain, which ultimately led to the decision to close the mountain to the public for the foreseeable future.
The front gate of Sugarloaf Mountain is currently locked with a chain and padlock and there are two paper signs on the gate that say the park is closed.
Also, the road that leads all the way up to Strong Mansion is open for cars to drive up to, but the road beyond the mansion is closed off with a metal rope with a sign that reads “PARK CLOSED, KEEP OUT.”
This is not the first time the mountain has been closed, according to Webster, who said that the mountain has closed before due to inclement weather and fallen trees. In addition, safety and security issues have also occurred on the mountain before from cars driving the wrong direction on the mountain’s one-way roads and visitors staying past sunset when the parks closes, Webster said.
According to Webster, weddings in the Strong Mansion are still ongoing, but the park is closed while the company implements new signage on the mountain to direct traffic and awaits the delivery of materials to install tire poppers on the one-way roads.
“You go the wrong way, you’re gonna lose your tire,” he said.
Webster told MoCo360 that there have been delays in receiving the materials and said that the installation can take weeks to allow the cement to properly cure.
He added that Stronghold is working to change the parking area at the entrance to the mountain into a legal fire lane to clear up the area for first responders that may need to enter the park.
“We’d appreciate the public’s patience while we install,” Webster said. “All these devices are for their safety. Their safety, our expense.”
Sugarloaf Mountain is located in Frederick County and partially shares a border with Montgomery County. The mountain’s website lists the address as 7901 Comus Road, Dickerson, which is in Montgomery County.
Attempted break-in at Strong Mansion
The Sugarloaf Mountain website states that the mountain was closed after “an unidentified individual attempted to make entry into the Strong Mansion between the hours of 8:30 am and 10:30 am,” but does not elaborate on details regarding the length of the closure or Stronghold’s security plans.
News of the break-in was announced in an Aug. 22 news release from the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office (FCSO).
Around 11:15 a.m. on Aug. 19, the FCSO said they received a call reporting a burglary at the Strong Mansion.
Officers discovered evidence of a burglary attempt but did not find a suspect or any property missing from the premises, police said.
Police determined that the suspect used an object, such as a rock, to break a glass door and then reached through the hole to attempt to unlock the door. Police said that they believe the suspect injured themselves in the process and fled the scene in a vehicle.
Police said they collected samples of the suspect’s blood from the scene for possible DNA identification, but no further updates have been provided.
FCSO Major Jeffrey Eyler, the operations division commander, said that even though the sheriff’s office put out a press release, they did not influence the decision to close the mountain.
“We didn’t advise them to close. We didn’t suggest that,” Eyler said. “We don’t think there’s an active threat to the community there.”
He also added that “there was nothing that led us to believe that this was an organized group” and that a crime like this would happen again.
Community members and business owners near the mountain said that the lack of communication on the reopening timeline has been frustrating, especially as summer temperatures start to cool and more visitors come to the area for outdoor activities.
This includes the employees at the Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard at 18125 Comus Road in Dickerson, which features a winery often filled with people who just hiked on the mountain and come to indulge in a variety of wines.
“We are looking to see if we can get in contact with [Stronghold, Inc.] to see if they have a timeline, just so that we are aware and so that when people call us asking questions as well, we can help get out information, but we haven’t been able to have contact with them yet,” said Maddy Barry, the winery operations coordinator.
She said that three weeks after the mountain closure, she still has received very little information.
Barry said that they were interested in seeing what effect the closure has had on business and customer traffic.
Steve Findlay, the president of the Sugarloaf Citizens Association – a Montgomery County-based non-profit organization that is unassociated with Stronghold, Inc. – said the closure was concerning to him and he had not received any updates on reopening from Stronghold.
“People are being deprived of access to a significant outdoor recreation and hiking space and it’s not an insignificant thing in our area to have this be shut down for an extended period,” he said.
A proposed new zoning overlay for Sugarloaf
Findlay said that the mountain has been well-run and maintained for years by Stronghold, but in recent years he has been troubled by the company’s pushback on the Frederick County Council’s move to include Sugarloaf land in a zoning overlay district, called the Sugarloaf Rural Heritage Overlay.
A zoning overlay is placed over the existing zoning designation of an area but does not change the previous designation, according to a Frederick County Planning and Permitting Commission FAQ page about the plan.
According to the Planning Commission, the Sugarloaf Rural Heritage Overlay “seeks to ensure that new development in the Sugarloaf Planning Area is of a scale that doesn’t excessively burden the transportation network and adversely impact natural resources, or overwhelm the rural nature of the planning area.”
Findlay’s concerns were amplified when the mountain closed abruptly this August, less than a year after Stronghold warned Frederick County government that they would close the mountain to the public if they were to include Sugarloaf in the new zoning overlay district.
The new zoning overlay district was included in the Sugarloaf Treasured Landscaped Management Plan, which the Council adopted in October 2022, but with pages regarding the proposed Sugarloaf Rural Heritage Overlay District removed and returned to the Planning Commission for further consideration, the Planning Commission website stated.
The Sugarloaf Plan would prevent development in nearly 20,000 acres of land in Frederick County and would create a “new land use designation for the Stronghold lands called “Treasured Landscape-Sugarloaf” to replace the current designation of Public Parkland/Open Space,” according to the FAQ page.
“So, the suspicion right away when … Stronghold closed the mountain was: ‘Well, what’s going on here?’ They threatened to do it. Yes, there was [an attempted break-in], but you know, maybe a one-day, two-day, three-day closing might have been appropriate. We’re now three weeks down the road on that closing. And the suspicions have deepened,” Findlay said.
Webster said that the issue with rezoning did not factor into Stronghold’s decision to keep the mountain closed for a prolonged period.
“This closure right here is completely security maintenance. It has nothing to do with the county,” he said.
Webster claimed that the proposed regulations would devalue Stronghold land and impede their current forest management program, which is why Stronghold has been so adamantly opposed to the rezoning.
“We told them for four years straight that we do not want to be part of it and the only way that it will satisfy us is if we are removed from the boundaries that they have drawn,” Webster said.
Since the mountain’s closing, a petition on Change.org, “Sugarloaf Mountain Needs Us!” popped up on Aug. 26 and has garnered more than 4,000 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon.
The petition’s author, Victoria Jones, wrote “Investors/Administrators/Builders are planning to develop part of the land in the near future (hence, the mountain is currently closed to the public).”
Webster said that the petition is incorrect and has tried unsuccessfully to have it taken down. He explained that as of right now there are no plans to build on the mountain and reiterated that the closure is unrelated to development.
Reopening the Mountain
For now, Webster said that if he were to “guesstimate” the park’s reopening with new security and safety measures would happen within the next two to three weeks.
“Hopefully, it’ll fall within there, and I’d love to see it sooner,” he said.
When the mountain reopens, Webster said that there will be new volume control measures in place, such as only keeping the five parking lots on the mountain open for visitors and closing the gates when all 250 parking spots have been used.
Webster said that controlling the volume of visitors at the mountain is key.
“Now, we’re centrally located in between West Virginia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Baltimore City, Washington, D.C., Maryland, you name it. And we’re a half hour to 45-minute drive. So, we get a lot of traffic and the more they build, the more we become popular,” he said.
He hopes that when visitors return they will treat the mountain as if they are guests, follow the new signage and park rules and respect the woodlands by disposing of trash off the mountain instead of littering, not leaving behind dog waste bags and not painting rocks on the mountain.
“Mind your manners, read the signs and obey the signs because they are written for you when you read them,” Webster said. “There are no entitlement attitudes allowed.”