Though it has been five years in the making, legislation to create a historic district in the Carroll County seat of Westminster comes before the city council tonight dead on arrival.
The idea of establishing a board with the power to review and reject outdoor alterations has garnered lukewarm support among town fathers, residents and business people in this city of 13,000. Historic district restrictions have a hard enough time overcoming political controversies in places where they are supported and valued, such as Annapolis or Frederick. A district would never work in a town that doesn't embrace it.
It's a shame. Westminster has a classic Main Street, dotted with gingerbread porches and Victorian turrets. It is not pockmarked by large parking lots. Even the more modern buildings are set back from the street or designed to blend gently with the past. Westminster retains a quaint, timeless feel.
Mayor W. Benjamin Brown and several councilmen believe the best way to retain that look is by educating and encouraging property owners, through tax breaks and other programs, to renovate their properties sensitively, rather than by requiring them to do so. As property owners get a taste of a voluntary system, they eventually might support more rigid standards, the mayor surmises.
A voluntary program has drawbacks. There's no legal hammer to halt an owner from defacing or demolishing a historically or architecturally significant building. Despite the work of a volunteer committee toiling over a historic preservation plan since 1987, much disinformation remains: This doesn't mean, as one accountant suggested, he'd be made to herd livestock through town as his granddaddy did. It doesn't mean a powder-wigged statesman had to catch a nap in a building or that an errant Civil War slug must be embedded in its brickwork to qualify as historic.
Some 2,000 communities have found economic value in creating programs to emphasize and protect their historic traditions. Most of them are small towns battling the same suburbanizing commercial forces as downtown Westminster. But the mayor and others in his camp seem to understand that Westminster residents first must recognize the value of what they have before they'll be willing to create a law to keep it from slipping away.