Plan to build close to historic site fought Homes proposed near Balmuckety mansion

March 11, 1996|By LIZ ATWOOD | LIZ ATWOOD,SUN STAFF

Less than two weeks after the historic Samuel Owings House was razed for an office tower, preservationists again are battling a developer -- this time over gardens designed by one of the

nation's first landscape architects.

Rynd Associates Inc., a firm headed by former state Del. Richard Rynd, wants to build 11 houses and a 150-bed nursing home on 10 acres surrounding the turn-of-the-century Balmuckety mansion.

For Baltimore County officials, the proposed Village Care project, off Reisterstown Road just outside the Beltway, presents another tough choice between economic development and historic preservation.

Although the neo-Georgian mansion would be preserved, opponents of the $6.5 million project say it would ruin the historic site and destroy remnants of gardens designed by Thomas Warren Sears.

"This will have an extremely adverse impact" on the mansion, said Ruth Mascari, chairwoman of the county Landmarks Preservation Commission.

The mansion is on the preliminary list of protected properties and the commission is to meet April 11 to decide whether the gardens should be listed separately.

The 1767 Samuel Owings House also was on the preliminary list of protected properties.

But it was knocked down in a deal endorsed by County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III, who never forwarded the list to the County Council. The developer, who wanted to clear the site for a $20 million office tower, said the house would be rebuilt at a new location -- though preservationists are skeptical.

Neighbors of Balmuckety and preservationists hope to prevent a repeat of the Samuel Owings case.

Sears, a Philadelphia landscape architect, was one of the first graduates of the Harvard School of Landscape Architecture. Although the gardens at Balmuckety have not been maintained for years, the brick walls, arbors and a fountain remain, as do many of the trees and some flowers.

Ms. Mascari said that the Smithsonian Institution has expressed interest in researching the gardens to learn about Sears. But architect W. Boulton Kelly, who testified before the planning board on behalf of the developer, described Sears as "an important practitioner, but not a great practitioner."

He also disagreed with contentions that the gardens are unique. Julius W. Lichter, a lawyer for Mr. Rynd, dismissed neighbors' concerns. They simply don't want development near their homes, he said, adding, "They are no more concerned about saving the house and gardens than the man in the moon." He said the gardens are in ruins and would cost too much to revive.

The county planning staff agrees. While recognizing the gardens' significance, "It's a question of proportionality," said Tim Dugan, chief of planning services. "If the nursing home is denied, the economic effect, in our considered judgment, is disproportionate to the value of returning the gardens."

The planning staff is recommending that an inventory of the gardens be taken, and then the project be allowed to go forward. Although County Council Chairman Kevin Kamenetz criticized the handling of the Samuel Owings House demolition, he was silent about Balmuckety, which is in his district. "I'm going to reserve any judgment."

He said he didn't want to interfere in the review process, but conceded that he could be forced into the fray. The council has the final say on which properties are placed on the preservation list -- and on a petition from the community to rezone the property.

The development plan for the project and a petition to build the nursing home are scheduled to go before the county hearing officer Thursday and Friday.

Ms. Mascari said she hoped the Landmarks Preservation Commission gets the chance to make its decision on the gardens before the plan proceeds. "I'd like to think we can see the process working as it should, especially after everyone got their fingers burned before."

Pub Date: 3/11/96

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