Once bulldozed, twice shy Another historic dispute?: Owings debacle slowed debate over Balmuckety Gardens.

April 10, 1996

WHILE THE JURY is still out on the historical value of the Balmuckety Gardens near Pikesville, and whether it should be protected, Baltimore County officialdom is rightly moving cautiously in its deliberations.

A zoning hearing on a housing development proposal that would destroy the neglected remains of that floricultural site was postponed last month until the county landmarks commission can decide whether to list the grounds for historic preservation. That commission meets tomorrow.

Recent county political history probably played as much a role in the zoning hearing delay as did the history of pioneer landscape architect Thomas Warren Sears, who designed the gardens 70 years ago.

Last month, controversy erupted over the abrupt demolition of the 18th century Samuel Owings House in a deal sealed by Baltimore County Executive Dutch Ruppersberger and County Councilman T. Bryan McIntire. That followed Mr. Ruppersberger's decision not to submit the building to the council for historic protection. The home was hastily bulldozed as preservationists awaited a court hearing on an injunction. County officials are now more cautious in judging the merits of historic sites. They have hopefully learned the lesson that these sites deserve full consideration, and full due process, or they can be lost forever.

In the case of Balmuckety, the developer needs a zoning variance to build a nursing home and houses on the 10-acre site. Questions remain about the unique nature of these gardens and their historical significance. The Smithsonian Institution is seeking detailed documentation about the gardens for its research on Sears, one of the first U.S. landscape architects. But that doesn't automatically mean the surviving walls and arbors must be restored and replanted. County planners recommend making a detailed inventory of the grounds, but they also back the development.

Balmuckety is not a well-known place, even to many residents of that area, nor is it publicly accessible. A wealth of detailed history about its design and construction is only now coming to light. That evidence should be carefully weighed in making a decision. It's a history lesson that should be well learned by now.

Pub Date: 4/10/96

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