WHILE ELLICOTT CITY'S historic downtown business district has its popular quaint shops that keep the cash registers ringing, it's also a hodgepodge of attractions and storefronts that reflect an old-fashioned mill town past. No newfangled planned community or period-piece frozen in time, the steep-sloped Main Street commercial district continues its workaday activity serving the community as well as the tourists.
Still, there's a persistent charm to be preserved in the Howard County seat if it is to continue to thrive as more than an adjunct to modern government offices on its outskirts. That's why any significant departure from the existing uses of historical district buildings needs a thorough public review before gaining approval, even if the structure's outward appearance nicely blends with the surroundings.
For that reason, we believe the proposal for an apartment house designed for low-income senior citizens should go through the designated process for obtaining a special exception. The Howard County Council, which has the power to bypass that more rigorous zoning review, should politely tell the developer of the Tiber-Hudson project that it declines to circumvent the lengthier process.
It's not certain that the proposal wouldn't pass muster after careful consideration of community concerns by zoning
authorities and with certain safeguard provisions. One major concern is that it might open the door to further residential development in what has been a growing, vital business area. The impact of the three-level apartment house on the appearance of the historic district is also at issue.
The County Council will certainly feel extra pressure to change the zoning rules for this project: It is backed by the Howard County Housing Commission and is in line to receive a possible $200,000 grant from the county as a socially desirable project.
By referring the developer's petition back to normal zoning channels, the council does not reject the idea of senior housing on Hamilton Street in the historic district. But it assures that proper procedures will be followed, with full opportunity for public comment, in deciding whether this project can fit into the business district without negative impact.