Historic Commission Needed To Preserve Westminster


November 17, 1991|By Dean R. Camlin Guest columnist

Having read Sharon Hornberger's column in The Carroll County Sun, Nov. 3 ("The Way It Is"), I felt compelled to respond.

It is unfortunate that Hornberger did not participate in the Westminster Historic District Study Committee during the two years we deliberated on the very questions she raised.

The idea of creating a historic district in Westminster is not a recent one. It has been debated on and off for over 20 years as various landmarks in Westminster were destroyed to make way for newer buildings.

Hornberger mentioned some of the more celebrated examples -- the old Carroll County Bank, St. John's Catholic Church, and the train station -- which can never be replaced. Whether these buildings were truly "outdated," as Hornberger claims, is a very subjective judgment that may not have been fully investigated at the time of their demolition, mainly because there was no mechanism in place to encourage their owners to think again about whether these buildings could be adapted to their changing needs.

A historic building commission would be such a mechanism. The five-member board, made up of members with recognized expertise in history, architecture, preservation or urban design, would review applications for alterations to the built environment within the district.

The commission would issue a set of design guidelines based on the U.S. Secretary of the Interior's "Standards for Rehabilitation," the same document employed by the MarylandHistoric Trust and the National Parks Service to determine compliance for the purpose of tax credits for historic rehabilitation.

These guidelines would be published and available as "objective criteria"(quoting from one of Hornberger's objections) to citizens and their consultants so that they could "anticipate what exterior changes or additions would get the panel's go-ahead."

Each review would be conducted in a public hearing, and the commission would base its decision on the information included in the application, the design guidelines and comments received from the public.

Incidentally, Hornbergeris wrong when she supposes that changes to local government buildings would be exempt from review by the historic district commission. This has been tested in the Maryland Court of Appeals, and the government lost.

Opponents of historic districts focus on commissions thathave been poorly managed or on examples of seemingly innocuous alterations that might be denied by a commission, but they do not offer realistic alternatives for the protection of a very valuable resource for all property owners: the assurance that your neighbors will not make changes to their property that would adversely affect your enjoyment of your own property or its market value to others.

Traditionalzoning is intended to do this, but it ignores historical character as a factor worthy of conservation and protection.

People who live and work in downtown Westminster (and I am one of those) should pauseto consider what they like about their town.

What makes Westminster a nice place to be? Which buildings would you miss? The Post Office? The Babylon Building? The old B. F. Shriver building (the stone building on Liberty Street recently threatened with demolition)?

These are a few of many examples of fine craftsmanship or unique character, but Westminster is more than a collection of individual notable buildings. It is an ensemble effect, including many structures that bythemselves may not be particularly striking, but when taken as a whole represent almost an icon of a small Piedmont city.

Look around you now and savor that feeling, because soon you will not recognize the view. Without protection, Westminster will surely succumb to the increasing pressure of development from the Baltimore-Washington metropolis and replace its buildings of character with buildings of efficiency. Unfortunately, it is easy to find many examples where that process has already occurred.

Before taking sides in this issue, people should also visit other historic districts in Maryland, such as Frederick or Bel Air or even our local Uniontown, and talk to the peoplewho live and work there to find out how their districts really work.

Often, property values will be higher within a district than outside of it. Rather than be carried away by the rhetoric of doomsayers,take a moment to find out the real truth.

One of the facts you may discover is that, contrary to Hornberger's statement, the Westminster Planning and Zoning Commission is powerless to prevent the demolition of any of Westminster's significant older buildings. This is why the mayor and council passed a separate anti-demolition ordinance last year.

However, that measure is only intended to be temporary, until the idea of a zoned historic district is fully examined by the public and either passed or rejected. A public hearing was conducted onthis topic at the Westminster Fire Hall last Thursday. I urge those who have strong feelings one way or the other about the proposal to make themselves heard.

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