Developer withstands preservationist barbs Owings House clash misguided, he says

June 24, 1996|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

When Owings Mills developer Howard Brown reflects on the criticism that dogged him for bulldozing the 18th century Samuel Owings House, he cites a parable passed on by his business mentor.

"My father used to say that Tom Sawyer carried a dead cat home by its tail," Brown says. "It was a good experience, but he wouldn't do it again."

That lesson rings true to Brown, a taciturn, private man who wants to be judged on his building projects and their contributions to Baltimore County's economic vitality, rather than his very public clash with preservationists.

Speaking at length for the first time since razing the Colonial-era house to make way for an office building, Brown makes clear that he prefers the contentious world of real estate development to the seemingly endless demands of the watchdogs of history. His plain-spoken arguments reflect a personality that has earned him a reputation as a tenacious, hardnosed -- some would even say mulish -- businessman.

He talks of reviews that found the Owings house's interior nearly devoid of authentic details. He says he "accelerated" the demolition in the face of a looming court hearing. And he pledges to rebuild a replica of the house -- even as his voice reveals frustration in contending with preservationists.

"Who needs it?" he says in a two-hour interview at his Owings Mills office. "I go along and I operate and I do what I want to do and nobody bothers me and all of a sudden I've got to put up with this? For what?

"The reality is, I'm doing what I said I was going to do. I said I was going to build a new building out there, and [county officials] agreed that I could build a new building out there. "

Some say Brown is misunderstood, that his gruff demeanor masks his devout, philanthropic side. What is undisputed, however, is that Brown has earned his image by being a relentlessly energetic devel-oper. Even as he seeks approval for a planned housing development off Main Street in Reisterstown, he is building houses and renting offices in Owings Mills and expanding an office complex in Woodlawn. Construction should begin next month on the nine-story, $20 million office tower near the former site of the historic house, built in 1767 by the mill owner for whom Owings Mills is named.

The house was placed on a preliminary list of protected landmarks last summer. But T. Bryan McIntire, the county councilman who represents Owings Mills, brokered an agreement under which Brown could raze the building. County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III shook hands with Brown on the deal.

On Feb. 23, Brown got a permit to raze the house and rebuild it on another site. A few days later, workers began to knock down its modern additions.

Abrupt conclusion

About 8: 30 a.m. Feb. 29, a lawyer for preservationists called a lawyer for Brown. A judge had set an afternoon hearing on the preservationists' request to stop the razing.

By noon, the house had been bulldozed to the ground.

Brown accuses opponents of playing "games" by waiting several days to challenge the demolition.

Recalling the events of Feb. 29, he says, "All of a sudden I get a phone call that they're going to have an injunction -- and half the house is gone and the other half is leaning over." He hastened the razing, he says, because an injunction could have left a half-demolished house standing, creating danger, especially for a nearby day care center.

The demolition ended a monthslong dispute about the house's fate -- but raised questions about whether Brown had honored his agreement with officials.

McIntire, who called the razing technique "barbaric," now declines to comment, other than to say he remains confident the house will be rebuilt.

Ruppersberger, who said he was shocked and offended by the bulldozing, believes Brown "overreacted" to the pressure from preservationists. "The unfortunate thing is -- and this is Howard -- his personality was such that he felt he was being attacked."

Still, the county executive maintains that rebuilding the house at another location was the best solution, because Brown had said he would leave the house boarded up in the shadow of his new office tower.

Brown got into the development business as a teen-ager, working for his father. Years later, he set out on his own, but honored his father by naming the company David S. Brown Enterprises.

He's publicity-shy -- even after talking with a reporter, he refused to pose for a Sun photographer. But he is well-known in development circles, a negotiator so tough as to border on stubborn, a quick thinker so confident as to border on arrogant.

P. David Fields, former head of the county's planning and zoning office, says, "His manner belies how smart he is. He's aggressive and almost boorish. I think he almost enjoys playing the role."

Fields, now head of the county's Office of Community Conservation, and others familiar with the county development process say one sign of Brown's business style is his unusual willingness to challenge other developers' proposals.

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