Putting teeth in historic preservation

March 06, 1995

The recent destruction of Woodlawn Mansion points up in glaring fashion the problem with Howard County's approach to historic preservation. The 19th century mansion was the former home of a Maryland judge and an attorney general, and more recently the upscale Papillon Restaurant. Even so, the mansion was demolished this winter in spite of its placement on a survey of historic sites in the county.

Howard County has never had regulations related to the demolition of buildings listed in that survey, compiled in 1980. The resulting hit-or-miss approach offers no assurance that worthy structures will be saved. In the case of Woodlawn Mansion, county planners were caught unaware of the owner's request for a demolition permit. But even if they had known, the government's only recourse would have been to delay granting the permit while attempting to convince the owner to save the structure.

Such a system is too haphazard. That's not to say that all the sites listed 15 years ago merit perpetual protection. The roster needs periodic review and updating.

The key point, though, is that in a rapidly changing jurisdiction that is attracting more and more newcomers, the cultural and architectural pillars of the county's heritage can provide a valuable foundation for community-building in future years.

In 1989, then-County Executive Elizabeth Bobo made an attempt to impose rules on designated historic sites. But her proposal was roundly criticized by owners of the historic buildings.

The proposals would have restricted, among other things, the colors the buildings could be repainted. The county has since approved non-mandatory guidelines for developers on historic sites.

In the absence of workable regulations, the county's commitment to preservation has been limited to that list of 630 historic sites compiled by a consultant. Even county officials admit, however, that the criteria used was loose at best.

As with the case of the former Woodlawn Mansion, people who live off of Gorman Road are now learning that an old farmhouse they would like to see preserved merits no protection by virtue of its place on the county's list. Such situations make it clear that Howard County is overdue for a review of its preservation efforts. It needs specific criteria based on state and federal standards -- as well as some power of enforcement.

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