Residents divided on building exteriors At center of dispute: town historic district

November 16, 1997|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Nearly all of Sykesville is taking sides between old wood and new vinyl in a battle that pits preservation against practicality and tears at the fiber of the town.

Many of the 3,500 residents, drawn by the charm of turn-of-the-century homes and storefronts, are willing to pay the price of preservation. Others, particularly Main Street business owners who want to replace decaying wood with less-expensive vinyl siding, find themselves at odds with the Sykesville Historic District Commission.

"The sense of character is lost when you cover a building," said Mark Rychwalski, commission chairman. "We are temporary stewards of these buildings, and whatever we do will affect the focus of the town."

The Town Council voted unanimously last week to support the commission in its efforts to preserve buildings according to guidelines established by the U.S. Department of the Interior, standards that prohibit vinyl siding in all 38 historic districts in the state. Without the council's support, the commission would have been powerless to enforce the guidelines, officials said.

"The basic question is whether or not we want a historic district," said Councilwoman Debby S. Ellis. "I want it. We have to establish guidelines. The commission is structured, but it gives flexibility."

The six-member commission has offered grants, tax credits and other financial incentives to encourage restoration. In one instance, the town volunteered to scrape and paint a building, only to meet the owner's refusal.

Mayor Jonathan S. Herman, a self-employed restoration contractor, knows the costs of preservation, but he said it increases property values. The controversy has more to do with property rights than vinyl, he said.

"Some owners are not interested in making their property attractive," Herman said. "They want to do minimal work, milk it for all it's worth, then sell."

Fred Gossage reviewed the regulations with the commission before buying a building at Main and Sandosky Road. Now, he is renovating the second story into four apartments and enlarging commercial space on the first floor. When he tried to save money by using vinyl on the sides and back, the commission rejected his plan.

"I agree that we shouldn't have a Main Street with vinyl, but what about the backs and sides of buildings that people can't see?" Gossage asked.

"We think the exterior is more important than the interior, because of what we want the town to look like," Rychwalski said.

Gossage and many others addressed the council Monday before the vote, which ended months of debate. A few people decried the cost of preservation, but many said they would pay to keep town history alive.

"I don't mind increased taxes to keep the character of our property values," said Michael Rice, chairman of the town planning commission. "We have to have rules, like those set by the commission. When you give leniency to the rules, you muddy the waters."

Debra Childress removed aluminum siding from her home. "An original article is always worth more than a copy," she said.

Eloise Stinchcomb, who moved here this summer and "already feels part of the history," urged community harmony.

Business owners such as Gossage have petitioned the commission unsuccessfully with requests to use vinyl. They formed the Citizens for a Better Sykesville and plan to meet this week to discuss strategy. They have hired an attorney and have not ruled out a lawsuit.

"The commission is unreasonably and unfairly telling people what to do with their property, imposing personal views on the rest of us," said Bruce Greenberg, owner of Greenberg Publishing Co. and several Main Street buildings. "They want wood showing, and they want us to pay for it."

Buddy Slack, owner of the Royal Electric Inc. building on Main Street, has chosen to do nothing rather than bow to commission rules. Slack acknowledges that his building is an eyesore, but he is a wholesaler who has no walk-in business.

The deteriorating structure has no historic significance or architectural value, Slack said, and vinyl makes sense. He rejected the town's offer to scrape and paint, preferring to keep the building in its decrepit state.

"If this is the way they want it to look, this is the way it will look for the rest of its life," Slack said.

Herman calls the building "the worst example of deferred maintenance and owner intransigence in town. He even refused to have the building painted for free."

Rychwalski cringes when he drives by Slack's "falling-down" building every day.

"It clashes with those that show civic pride," he said. "The front of our building is a calling card, a reflection of the owner."

Rychwalski, who lives and works in town, joined the commission to make Sykesville a better place, he said.

"We encourage people to do sensitive things to their homes and buildings," he said. "There is flexibility and compromise. We can't make everyone happy, but we strive to."

The commission developed a five-category rating system, with the most-historic structures rated A. The panel can offer the most flexibility with structures rated E. In three years, it has processed 60 applications, rejecting five.

The town recently paid a Baltimore-based consultant $16,000 to start a downtown revitalization and make Main Street an attractive centerpiece. Decaying buildings will impede the project.

"We have to educate people on the advantages of a strong historic district," said Herman. "And, we have to make renovation an attractive option."

Pub Date: 11/16/97

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