Disputes over windows continue to tarnish the charm in Uniontown's historic district

March 02, 1997|By Lisa Breslin | Lisa Breslin,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

It has been called one of the more pristine historic districts in the county, but Uniontown's efforts to maintain its charm have pitted neighbor against neighbor.

In the middle of the brouhaha, again, is Uniontown's Historic Preservation Commission -- a group of volunteers who say they just want to maintain the community's historic purity and try to be fair.

The faces on the commission have changed throughout the years, but the battles have been the same. This year, the debate is about fixing rickety windows with vinyl replacements instead of the more expensive custom wood windows, which meet restoration guidelines.

Several years ago, trouble brewed over a door on a 150-year-old home. During restoration, the resident took the door off, which led county officials to issue a stop-work order until the door was put back on. Ultimately, the Carroll County Board of Zoning Appeals sided with the resident and allowed restoration to continue -- without the door.

There is not a resident in this small community, or a member on the historic preservation commission, who wants these debates, they say. But unless the restoration guidelines become more specific and the commission is consistent, the debates seem destined to continue.

From a car or even the sidewalk, wooden and vinyl windows may look identical. But ask a resident whose application for vinyl replacements has been turned down, and they can supply precise addresses for who has vinyl, who has wooden, and who has both types of replacement windows.

They will also tell you who went through the "proper procedures," who didn't, who has gotten away with it and who hasn't.

But a recent decision to allow one family to keep vinyl windows that were not approved by the commission does not mean that the commission will approve all other requests just to keep the peace, said Patrice Bennett, who has served on the Uniontown oversight panel since June.

"I will continue to look at each individual case. I've studied older decisions and the design guidelines from Maryland so I won't make a personal decision. I want to make learned ones," Bennett said.

"I didn't raise the devil when I saw another family putting in the vinyl windows," said Donald Dedmon, whose request to install vinyl windows in his home was turned down. "I thought it was a good move and they look great.

"I've needed new windows for a while and I can't get them," he said. "This is a hardship.

I'm in bed, and there is ice forming on the windows and all the moisture is causing structural damage to my home. Why should I have to pay more for the wooden windows when other people are paying less for vinyls?"

That is a fair question, according to members of other local historic preservation commissions.

Like Uniontown, Westminster and Sykesville have local historic districts. What makes Uniontown unique is that it is not an incorporated town with a town council or a mayor to support or dispute its decisions, which makes the debates more frequent and fiercer.

"It's the bickering that gets in the press -- the bickering without the reality," said Bennett. "The reality is that we have a group of residents who volunteer their time to preserve the historic district and to make a contribution to the community. We are human and we are trying to work with everyone."

Mark Rychwalski, chairman of Sykesville's preservation commission, has watched the window debate in Uniontown.

"Consistency is important, and they have been inconsistent. It has opened the door to other people asking, 'Why not me?' " Rychwalski said.

In Sykesville every case stands on its own, Rychwalski said. It is possible to have two applications for the same variance, like new windows, for example, and have one approved and one turned down.

The difference lies not in the request, but in the historic ranking of each home.

The homes and businesses in Sykesville's historic district are ranked A through E. The homes that are the most important historically because of their age, location or construction style, receive an A. Homes of lesser historic value are given a B ranking, and so on.

"Guidelines are more strict for homes with high ranking," Rychwalski said. "But that doesn't mean if you own a D or an E home you can do whatever you want."

Sometimes rankings change, Rychwalski said. The local bank, for example, was upgraded to an A ranking after restoration.

Uniontown's commission is supposed to have five members and one alternate, but now there are four members and no alternates. Names have been submitted to the county commission and a decision about new members is expected soon, according to Jim Smith, chairman of the community's Historic Preservation Commission.

Sykesville expanded its historic preservation commission from five to seven members to get more diversity, Rychwalski said. "Half of the members have old homes; half have new homes."

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