Reasoned retrenching in Ellicott City

February 24, 1994

Not long ago, historical societies were routinely ridiculed for their preservation efforts. Too often, the goal of "progress" preceded a healthy reverence for the past.

That sentiment has been changing, though, giving rise to such groups as Howard County's Historic District Commission. The commission has historic Ellicott City as its focus, and maintaining the city's architectural integrity as its primary objective.

Now, however, it seems the pendulum may be swinging back a little bit toward the direction from which it came.

The commission has decided to loosen its hold on architectural decisions by allowing property owners to do routine household repairs without notifying the commission. The new rules also allow commission members to meet within 24 hours to vote on major emergency repairs, while imposing an 18-month limit for the approved alterations to be accomplished in order to speed repairs. In all, the rules are meant to streamline a cumbersome system.

George "Buzz" Suter knows how cumbersome the old system could be. Mr. Suter's establishment, the Judge's Bench restaurant in Ellicott City, developed a leaky roof after a recent storm. Faced with waiting two weeks for the commission to meet and approve the repairs, Mr. Suter went ahead and fixed the roof anyway. It was either that or have water drip on his customers.

The changes the commission approved should address this obvious problem. By comparison, architectural covenants have been in place in Columbia for more than two decades, subjecting major exterior changes to review and approval. But the boards charged with enforcing Columbia's rules allow emergency maintenance repairs without their signing off on them.

The Historic District's new rules likewise make sense. However, they must not be interpreted as an opportunity to chip away at the many worthwhile restrictions that stand guard over Ellicott City, one of Howard County's -- and Maryland's -- crown jewels. The historic mill town's link to the past should always be protected.

A footnote: The residents of Elkridge's Lawyers Hill neighborhood want Zoning Board approval to become Howard County's second historic district, giving it a voice on the county Historic District Commission.

That's progress of another kind.

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