Lawyers Hill battling plan for 8 houses Couple wants to build on 5 acres in historic district

Resisting urban sprawl

Quaint community served city lawyers as summer residence

January 21, 1996|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

Residents of Lawyers Hill, an Elkridge neighborhood and 19th-century summer retreat for Baltimore lawyers and judges, are lashing out at what they consider an encroachment of urban sprawl on a historic district they thought was safe from development.

A local couple wants to build eight single-family houses on 5 acres around the district's Hursley Manor, a historic home built in the 1850s on Lawyers Hill Road.

The pair's plan, due for review Feb. 1 by the Howard County Historic District Commission, would be the first such development in Lawyers Hill since it joined downtown Ellicott City as an official historic district in 1994.

Some Lawyers Hill residents -- who hoped the historic status HTC would prevent such a situation -- aren't pleased.

"I like the idea of being in a historic district, but I don't think it has helped," says Maureen O'Connell, 62, who has lived in her historic home on Lawyers Hill Road for 16 years and considers herself a newcomer. "There's no sense in moving in if you're going to change the atmosphere."

Helen Voris, 78, who has lived on Old Lawyers Hill Road since 1958, says the development "wouldn't add anything to the community, just detract from it."

But Timothy and Susan Coleman -- the couple planning to build the houses -- say they're just trying to make the best use of their property.

"Our land is zoned to be subdivided," says Mrs. Coleman, who has lived in Hursley Manor with her husband for nearly three years. "This area wasn't even a historic district when we bought it. And we were told it would not be a problem [developing it] afterward either."

Cindy Hamilton, a planner with the Department of Planning and Zoning who will further review the Colemans' proposal, says their project is "by the book."

"Residents are looking at us and saying, 'Save us from this,' " says Ms. Hamilton. "We cannot deny someone the ability to develop their property."

The controversy involves a quaint neighborhood of 40 properties of varying architectural styles that, in the past few decades, has found itself increasingly hemmed in by development and the metropolitan bustle of Baltimore to the north and Washington to the south.

Perched on a wooded hill overlooking the Patapsco River, the county district -- which now includes portions of Lawyers Hill, Old Lawyers Hill and River roads, all east of Interstate 95 -- began attracting its first crop of Baltimore lawyers and judges in 1840.

Through the remainder of the century, residents built stately homes at the end of long driveways off the narrow main roads.

The exclusive community remained intact until the 1960s, when construction of Interstate 95 divided it in two. In the 1970s, Interstate 895 was built to the east, hemming it in further and exposing residents to the noise and distraction of two highways.

In 1993, a complex of 60 single-family homes was built along the southwest border of what is now the historic district.

While there was some antagonism initially to the Gables at Lawyers Hill development, resentment subsided when the project was near completion, said Tim Good, vice president of the development's residents' association.

"They are very rich-looking. Historic district residents are very happy with the way they turned out," he says of the Colonial-style homes that sell for $260,000 to $400,000.

To prevent other disruption in or near Lawyers Hill, however, residents got county historic district designation in April 1994. Nearly 700 acres -- east and west of I-95 -- was listed on the ## National Register of Historic Places in 1993.

While no special regulations apply to the western portion of Lawyers Hill, residents of the section within the county's historic district must yield to the Historic District Commission (HDC) in making exterior changes to their property.

Opponents of the Colemans' project have pinned their hopes on the seven-member commission, which governs development and architectural standards in the county's historic districts.

Because county law dictates that all new construction in historic districts must be compatible with standing structures, HDC members will review the Colemans' sketch plans next month and make general suggestions to the couple.

Regardless of how the controversy turns out, some longtime Lawyers Hill residents say it has helped to galvanize the community. Ms. Voris says that the struggle to preserve Lawyers Hill has mobilized even the younger residents.

"My generation replaced the community's 'old guard,' but we're dying off and going to nursing homes," she says. "The younger people coming in realize they have a good thing, and they are also advocating for less change.

"It isn't that we are opposed to development, we just want to slow it down," she says.

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