Closing historic preservation loophole

June 13, 1995

Many of the appropriate parties seem to be in basic agreement over the need for historic preservation legislation in Howard County. As it is now, a large loophole in the county's zoning regulations makes far too many worthy buildings vulnerable to demolition.

Avoiding incidents such as the one that saw the former Papillon Restaurant in Ellicott City razed last February has heightened concern about the loss of historically and architecturally significant structures. In that case, a 19th century mansion was destroyed before the community had a chance to react.

The drive for historic preservation has come on several fronts, each with a slightly different set of goals.

The Howard County Historic District Commission wants to ask local elected officials to expand the county's protections for historic buildings beyond designated historic districts. Currently, only Lawyers Hill and Ellicott City are designated historic areas, which protect buildings from substantial alteration or destruction.

Meanwhile, an Ellicott City homeowners association is calling on Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker to impose a moratorium on destruction of historic homes and wants the county to offer homeowners a 10 percent property tax credit for restoring old properties. Mr. Ecker rejects the idea of a moratorium but likes the notion of a tax credit and has already begun crafting the legislation. He says he will wait until September to offer a bill to the County Council.

Mr. Ecker is right to assume a measured response. Residents need reflect back only a few years to recall the effects of then-County Executive Elizabeth Bobo's 1987 building moratorium, which badly backfired and resulted in a run on applications for building permits. Any serious discussion of a moratorium might move some property owners to rush to demolish buildings.

What is needed is a rational policy that saves historic sites not only from the wrecking ball but from deterioration and abandonment.

The criteria for determining what is historic need to be expanded and strictly adhered to. It is insufficient that Howard law provides protection to only two small parts of the county.

But elected officials should avoid making it too easy to declare practically anything "historic." Legitimate historic preservation, though, is long overdue in Howard County.

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