Demolishing 1855 building's remains riles residents preservation law urged

March 20, 1995|By Sherry Joe | Sherry Joe,Sun Staff Writer

Ellicott City residents, upset that the remains of a 140-year-old mansion in their neighborhood were demolished for a townhouse development, want to enact legislation to protect other old buildings from the same fate.

"We're hoping to create some public outcry," said Scott Billigmeier, secretary of the homeowners association at Braebrooke, a 90-unit townhouse development near Rogers Avenue and Frederick Road. "We're mobilizing our community."

In February, developers razed the former Woodlawn mansion-turned-French restaurant near Frederick and Tollhouse roads to make room for a 112-unit townhouse development. The 1855 building was damaged by a fire several years ago.

Residents said they were amazed to discover that the remains of the mansion were not protected from developers even though it was one of 636 properties listed on Howard County's Historic Sites Inventory.

"We knew it was on the county historic register, and in our ignorance we thought it was protected," Mr. Billigmeier said.

But the only properties protected from developers are those that have historic preservation easements or are located in official historic districts, such as Ellicott City and Lawyers Hill in Elkridge.

The Woodlawn mansion had neither protection.

County officials said the list of historic sites was created solely to identify historic properties -- not to protect them from private developers.

"Essentially, it's just documentation" of a property's architectural features, history and former owners, said county planner David Holden.

However, he said inclusion on the list is a requirement for a historic building to be converted into a county-designated "country inn" and often is the first step for property owners looking to place their properties on the National Register of Historic Places.

But residents said they want to strengthen the list by creating a historic district commission, similar to a nine-member Montgomery County panel, that would oversee all historic structures in the county.

In Montgomery County, the panel governs everything from architectural standards to demolition procedures for historic structures throughout the county.

"We think Montgomery County has a good plan," Mr. Billigmeier said. "They talk about tax credits and try to make [historic preservation] as palatable to property owners as possible."

In Howard County, a seven-member Historic District Commission governs development and architectural standards in historic districts in Ellicott City and Lawyers Hill. A developer must seek approval from the commission to tear down a building in the historic districts.

Historic buildings that have a Maryland Historical Trust easement also have some protection from developers. To demolish a building under an easement, the developer must seek approval from Maryland Historical Trust, a state agency that over sees state historic sites.

Developers said the fire-damaged mansion was beyond saving and was too expensive to renovate.

"We always look to see if there is any value to retaining a property," said James R. Moxley III, vice president of Security Development Corp. in Ellicott City.

"There was nothing salvageable about the property."

Mr. Moxley added: "Even if it could have been saved, it would not have fit or served a purpose in this townhouse development."

But residents disagree.

They cite the historic Dundee House, a home listed on the county's Historic Sites Inventory and which is in the middle of their housing development, as an example of how historic structures can coexist with new development.

"We're trying to find a balance between the rights of property owners and the rights of community," Mr. Billigmeier said.

If old buildings are not preserved, the county risks losing its history and uniqueness, preservation activists said.

"You don't make any more history from that era," said Ned Rogers, an Ellicott City psychologist whose great-grandfather used to own the Woodlawn mansion before selling it in 1924. "They're a very important part of the human and cultural part of an era."

Mr. Billigmeier agreed.

"It's a part of the county history that's irreplaceable," he said. "What you have left is Kmart, Wal-Mart and asphalt parking lots, and Howard County is left looking like every other county in America."

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