Building concerns Ellicott residents More development may damage historic district, they fear

September 21, 1998|By Nancy A. Youssef | Nancy A. Youssef,SUN STAFF

At first glance, Ellicott City's Historic District, with its small family-owned businesses and 18th century homes, appears to have been spared from Howard County's development boom -- until you reach boundaries like Church Road.

Trees dating to the city's inception in 1772 stand like sentries on one side, as if trying to hold back an encroaching sign of modern Ellicott City on the other: the backs of newly built homes.

Projects like these are sprouting in and around the district, and some residents fear they could destroy efforts to preserve the historic area and its surroundings.

"I am worried about the feel. Just because there is a line there doesn't mean that's where the district ends," said Sally Bright, who has lived in the city for 35 years. "There is no place like Ellicott City [and] all of sudden it's just like anyplace else."

In the last six months, developers working in the heart of the district have added three commercial buildings and proposed adding 27 town homes to Fels Lane, a major change by the district standards.

"We didn't have anything for several years and all of a sudden we had three" new buildings, said Herbert Johl, a member of the city's Historic District Commission. "I'd say that's a surge."

Within a one-mile radius of the district are 30 proposed projects ranging from one home to entire new neighborhoods. That's in addition to the commercial expansion along nearby U.S. 40 and Montgomery Road.

City residents believe the county should be sensitive to the area around the district, saying the changes have led to a sharp difference between where the historic district ends and newer ,, Ellicott City begins.

"It doesn't make sense to see [new] houses from here," said Bright, who believes part of the district's charms are the hills throughout the area. Looking out to new homes "doesn't blend )) in."

Residents also point to the increased traffic the projects will create.

"From a community standpoint, it's going to eat more parking," said Pat Patterson, who owns P.J.'s restaurant on Main Street.

Developers say it's just a sign of the times. With the area's strong economy, developers and buyers are creating a growing demand for continued development near the city.

"If we build, they will come," said Peter Ruff, who plans to add a two-story building in the 3700 block of Old Columbia Pike, part of the historic district.

The commission's power to control development is limited. It reviews proposed changes within the district to ensure they blend with the area. But Johl says the commission cannot stop development if it complies with county rules.

"All properties [outside the district] are reviewed for effects on the historic district however, the county does not have many of the mechanisms" it does for properties within the district, said Steve Bockmiller, the commission's administrative assistant in the Office of Planning and Zoning.

Developers do not deny outside projects are affecting the district, but they say their proposals don't threaten its atmosphere.

"You can still build a community around a historic district and still make it an appealing place," said Scott Armiger, development director for Orchard Development Corp., which plans to build 10 homes a half-mile from the district.

Developers say the county's growing population -- which has increased 12 percent in the last five years -- has increased interest in what Ellicott City has to offer.

"I think the reason it has changed sure has got to do with the massive development. I think [newcomers] come to spend time in Ellicott City," said Ruff. "At some point [in the last two years], the city was discovered."

A project like Long Gate Shopping Center on Montgomery Road -- completed in 1993 -- is one example of how outside development affects the district, Ruff said. It draws more people to Ellicott City, and eventually to the historic district.

"I think Ellicott City has been a developing giant for a long time," he said. Projects like the shopping center "signal what is going on around the historic district."

Part of the development controversy in Ellicott City stems from ,, the diminishing supply of open land in the area. Remaining parcels often are small, and have limited building potential because of steep slopes or wetlands, for example. Residents, expecting the land would remain forever green, are shocked when bulldozers arrive.

"These are the last pieces left," said Joseph W. Rutter Jr., director of the Office of Planning and Zoning. "Those properties were not developed for a reason."

Michael Pfau, president of Trinity Homes Inc., who is seeking approval to build 27 town homes on Fels Lane, is limited to less than 6 acres of the steeply sloped 7.25-acre property. For much the same reason, Armiger will only use half of the 7 1/2 acres for his 10-home project.

Pfau says that simply allows him to create a more wooded atmosphere. But for those who have lived in the county when it was predominantly farmland, those hills are part of what preserves the historic district.

"Part of a historic district is the hills," said Bright. "It's the feel of Ellicott City that's important."

Said Enalee Bounds, who has lived in the area for 35 years: "I think you have to look at the total impact. Part of that is the trees."

Ruff suggests the development trend is here to stay. Howard County is growing, and with developable land at a premium, property in and around the district is more valuable.

"It's been a gradual thing. It is no longer a sleeping little county," he said. "It's getting into the mainstream."

Pub Date: 9/21/98

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