Historic districts are much like the old buildings they seek to protect: They're fragile, too often underappreciated and a few sloppy actions can mar the whole structure. No one should better understand that than the commissions appointed to oversee the districts.
And yet in a recent case in Ellicott City, one of Maryland's finest preserved towns, the historic commission acted in as slipshod a manner as some ham-handed aluminum siding contractor.
The owner of Cacao Lane Restaurant in the 221-year-old mill town wanted to erect three decks off the eatery. Restaurateur Allen Parsons got permission in 1988, but later changed the plans after he hit unexpected stone while digging pilings. Mr. Parsons said the former executive secretary of the historic district visited his place and commented favorably on the decks. But he received no written record of the executive secretary's visit or any written reply confirming changes to the original plans he said his engineer sent the county. "As far as I was concerned," he said, "the issue was dead."
Now, some neighbors are upset about the work. They say the decks are obtrusive and they fear noise from late-night outdoor diners. The commission plans to revisit the issue this summer, but isn't sure what to do now that the decks are up, except possibly devise a way to screen them.
By nature, historic district commissions demand that property owners be fastidious about exterior changes they make to their buildings. So how could the commission appear so sloppy about a project's paper trail? In fact, minutes from the commission's original meeting about the decks show that the square footage was never discussed -- sort of like approving a highway without knowing how many lanes it would have. The dimensions weren't defined until later in the building permit process.
Mr. Parsons may not be a total innocent in this controversy. He built a deck more than twice as large as originally planned, no minor miscalculation. Also, the people who bought homes near Main Street shouldn't have expected to hear only the songs of crickets and cicadas at dusk. But most of the fault seems to lie with the historic commission: If it is going to hold property owners to higher standards -- and it should -- the panel must operate in a more formal, businesslike manner.