Window on preservation Howard County: Commission can maintain historic Ellicott City without onerous regulations.

May 13, 1998

WALK ALONG Ellicott City's Main Street and it is hard to find evidence that its historical character is endangered. Although a coffee shop, a signature of the 1990s, is a hit as businesses cater to contemporary tastes, old-fashioned charm endures in old stone buildings that hug the curved road.

Main Street has succeeded as a tourist destination because outsiders, as well as Howard County residents, are lured by the timeless ambience of the place.

Not everyone, however, is convinced that enough is being done to maintain the street's historic look, despite strict standards that prohibit property owners from making radical changes to the facades of buildings. An idea -- and for now, it is only an idea -- has emerged to restrict interior signs that are visible from the street.

The loudest complaints about this new idea come from business owners, who resist any limitations, even those that ostensibly would keep the area attractive to their customers. But they, perhaps more than anyone, should be concerned about keeping healthy the goose that lays their golden eggs.

The issue of tacky indoor signs was not on the agenda when the Historic District Commission of Ellicott City met last week, but when the issue comes to the table, there should be plenty of room for reasoned discussion.

If commission members want to restrict interior displays, they can achieve their aim without angering business owners. What they can't do is propose a regulation that is so onerous or vague that it would confuse entrepreneurs such as the owner of Gateway Travel, who should not have to worry that the sign police will come every month when she changes her window.

Before the commission proposes a change, it should be specific about what it is trying to discourage -- all neon signs, sexually explicit displays? The commission also must build consensus among businesses to show why pushing their regulatory power through the door would protect commercial, as well as historic, interests.

Pub Date: 5/13/98

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