Mansion rescue falls through Builder chosen to work on Aigburth Vale says he needs funding aid

Flood plain noted

County says it won't contribute to project

'We want to get rid of it'

September 08, 1997|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

The rescue plan for historic Aigburth Vale has come apart, once again leaving the fate of the deteriorating Towson mansion unsettled.

Builder Martin P. Azola, who was picked by Baltimore County to restore and renovate the 1868 mansion, says he can't proceed without financial help from the county. But county officials, who are selling the ramshackle property for $500, say they never planned to contribute money to the project.

"Negotiations have ceased," Shirley Murphy, chief of the county Bureau of Land Acquisition, said Friday. "We do not have a contract with Azola. At this time, we do not anticipate a contract."

Murphy said she did not know what the next step would be in the county's disposal of the crumbling property. "In short order, I know the county wants to sell it quickly."

Preservationists reacted with alarm to the news that the French-style mansion -- the once-grand home of 19th-century comedic actor John Owens -- will continue to decay.

"Aigburth Vale is a significant Victorian structure in the county seat," said Ruth B. Mascari, chairwoman of the Baltimore County Landmarks Preservation Commission. "It is reprehensible and irresponsible that any entity should be able to contribute to demolition by neglect of this handsome Baltimore County historic site."

Until last year, the county school system, which moved onto the property in 1950, used the 22-room mansion and other buildings for offices.

The county, which took control after the school system, allowed the mansion to deteriorate over the years but has made some recent repairs, including sealing the roof.

After offering the property for sale, the county received nine restoration proposals. In April, it accepted Azola's proposal to renovate the mansion for office use.

Azola, who has restored other historic properties in the area, sought financial aid after learning this summer that two outbuildings on the 3 1/2 -acre property were in a flood plain.

He planned to use the buildings to generate rental income and as collateral to finance the initial $250,000 exterior restoration of the main house, he said.

Buildings in flood plains, however, can be susceptible to higher insurance rates and restricted usage, which jeopardized Azola's development plan.

"The county is unwilling to close the economic gap created by the newly identified flood plain," Azola said. "It's most frustrating.

"The county seems to have forgotten why we're doing this thing. It's not to make me wealthy. It's a national landmark that's falling apart."

But county officials say they cannot provide funds that were not offered to others who submitted restoration proposals.

Last week, Azola asked county officials whether they would rent the two outbuildings -- a former garage and maintenance building -- for $34,560 a year for two years so he could proceed with the mansion's exterior renovation. He anticipated spending another $500,000 in the beginning for interior repairs.

"I'm not looking for a handout," he said. "Until the flood plain came up, everything was fine."

For now, Azola said he will seek a postponement of a zoning hearing scheduled tomorrow.

To proceed with his plan, he needed the property's zoning changed.

Area residents hope Azola will find a way to proceed.

"We're still enthusiastic about the project," said Judith Giacomo, president of Aigburth Manor Community Association. "I don't think anybody's ready to throw up their hands."

Councilman Douglas B. Riley, a Towson Republican whose district includes the mansion, said, "I would like nothing better than for [Azola] to come to us tomorrow and say, 'I have come up with the finances and can go forward.'

"But he's asking for a lot of money. We don't want to put money into it. We want to get rid of it."

Pub Date: 9/08/97

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