Debate centers on role of historic commission Bill would broaden powers of panel RTC

February 15, 1996|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

To some, the Historic District Commission represents the last line of defense against garish and thoughtless development in Annapolis.

To others, it is an elite panel whose members use personal tastes instead of objective standards to control the look of downtown.

The two sides clashed this week as aldermen debated a bill that would update the commission's operating guidelines and, in the process, give the panel power to review the interiors of some historic district businesses.

"I'm concerned," said Jeffrey Clum, vice president of HB Properties, which manages Buddy's Crabs & Ribs in downtown Annapolis. "If the government starts determining what product lines you can carry in the windows and so forth and so on, then we've got a real problem."

But business owners such as Mike Ashford argue that over-eager competitors are covering the historic district with "warts," such as neon signs and tacky banners, and need a tough Historic District Commission to control them.

"Looking at the town, you see an awful lot of garish signage through the windows," said Mr. Ashford, who owns McGarvey's Saloon and Oyster Bar. "It just looks sleazy."

Across Maryland, historic district commissions vary in sophistication, staffed by everyone from full-time paid professionals to residents who fancy themselves history buffs.

The commissions' powers also range widely, from Baltimore's review of more than 7,000 historic properties to the newly created North Beach commission's oversight of zero historic districts.

The state passed amendments last year requiring all 37 jurisdictions with historic district commissions to give their commissions roughly comparable powers.

The most controversial of them allows a commission to review historic district business interiors that are in public view.

The provision stems from a case in Frederick County more than a decade ago. A local business owner wanted to hang a plastic sign in his historic building's plate-glass window.

"It's one of those situations where somebody could put a huge sign inside their window and skirt the historic city's sign ordinances," said Bernard Callan, a Frederick preservationist who sits on the Maryland Association of Historic District Commissions, which consulted on the state law.

Maryland Historical Trust officials say several cities have adapted their historic district commission codes without a peep of protest. But not Annapolis.

Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins and Aldermen Louise Hammond and Dean Johnson mapped out the state's provisions in the city legislation that was introduced Monday. Alderman M. Theresa DeGraff is fighting the measure, arguing that it amounts to little more than a power grab by a commission of questionable authority.

Commission Chairwoman Donna Ware rejects that claim, saying the city measure does little more than take care of some administrative paperwork handed down by the state.

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