Historic District Hobbles The Future

AS I SEE IT

Clinging To Past Indiscriminately Keeps People From Looking Ahead

November 03, 1991|By Sharon Hornberger

In the 1960s and 1970s, downtown Westminster hovered between life and death.

Longtime businesses closed their doors and were replaced only with "for sale" or "for rent" signs.

Some businesses chose to demolish existing buildings and create expanded facilities rather than move out of town, providing a core of city growth.

The beautiful, but outdated, Carroll County Bank Building disappeared, as did old St. John's Church, the Railroad Avenue train station, and less-attractive warehouses and factories.

The Carroll County Library, new and refurbished housing, businesses, parks and parking lots took their place, built to suit the needs, ideas or pocketbooks of citizens and new owners. Some of the structures are modern, some Victorian, some colonial.

Westminster might not be a picture postcard, but it is a living, breathing community where people come to live, shop, eat, work, worship and be entertained.

Now, the mayor and City Council are considering a plan for a historic district that could change the character of Westminster.

The district would include an area from Manchester Avenue, Key Street, Pennsylvania Avenue, Union Street, Spring Avenue and a few zigs and zags along theWestminster corporate limits.

The plan calls for the creation of a five-member panel that would have the power to approve or disapprove exterior construction, alterations, repairs, moving or demolition of any structure within the historic district.

The structure does not have to be "historic" (whatever that means, since no definition isincluded in the proposal) to be controlled by the panel.

The proposal does not state any objective criteria for construction approval.Hence, a resident in the historic district could not anticipate whatexterior changes or additions would get the panel's go-ahead.

Think back a few months to the Uniontown controversy over a garage that had been built in the 1950s. Its demolition was a problem for months while members of that town's historic district debated the issue.

Another problem with the proposed panel is the voting procedure. A quorum would be three members, and a simple majority of two could approve or deny a proposal.

Just think, two people could control any exterior change to any structure within the proposed historic district.Only painting, routine maintenance or repair would be exempted from the panel's control.

No, Mr. Homeowner, you cannot remove that rotting porch, no matter what it might cost you to repair it.

No, Mr.Businessman, you cannot remove that shed to provide additional parking spaces for your customers.

If you did make those changes without panel approval, you could be taken to Carroll Circuit Court, which could cost more than $1,000 with court and lawyer fees.

Isn't there a better way to protect the beauty of our old buildings without this proposed historic district?

You bet there is.

It's called theWestminster Planning and Zoning Commission, and it's already in place and functioning.

The mayor and council are also an integral partin this control. They recently denied a permit for the demolition ofan old stone building on Liberty Street. A historic building has been saved, and it did not require a historic district panel to do it.

The historic district proposal does not meet community needs. It isa bad proposal.

Will Ascension Church have to move out of the city in order to expand? Will Westminster United Methodist Church have to move from Main Street for lack of parking space?

How long can Carroll's District and Circuit Court systems remain together without the ability to expand their office space and parking? Will the Carroll County Library be able to expand to meet the growing needs of our citizens?

What about Emerald Hill? Will it remain City Hall? The mayor has suggested that an adjunct building be constructed. How could that ever be approved by the historic panel? Or, would that plan be approved simply because it's the city that wants to expand, while homeowners and businessmen get short shrift?

What would happen to those buildings that cannot be adapted for another purpose? Will we see a new crop of "for sale" and "for rent" signs?

Change is inevitable. Without change, growth stops.

Museums are nice places to visit, but I prefer a living, breathing city.

Westminster is such a city. Acity with a present and a future, not just a past.

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