Commission blocks Ellicott City townhouses Plan seen as threat to historic district

November 24, 1998|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

To the relief of activists and residents of historic Ellicott City, the Howard County Historic District Commission voted yesterday to block a proposed housing development that many believed would have destroyed the soul of the 19th century mill town.

The six commission members present voted unanimously against the proposal to build 27 townhouses on about 6 acres on Fels Lane. It would have been the biggest townhouse development close to historic Main Street, known for its antique shops, museums and preserved building fronts.

"You would lose the historic value, which is why I think we had such a quick vote," said Richard Taylor, a commission member )) who lives near Fels Lane.

Ellicott City's historic district, with its winding streets and centuries-old trees, is the major tourist attraction in Howard County, drawing tens of thousands of visitors annually.

Stephen R. Bockmiller, the commission's administrative assistant in the Office of Planning and Zoning, said the developer, Michael Pfau, can appeal the commission's decision to Howard County Circuit Court. Pfau could not be reached for comment after the decision.

Sally Bright, a community activist who has lived in Ellicott City for 35 years and who attended yesterday's 45-minute meeting, said she was surprised and relieved that the commission decided so quickly to vote against the project.

"We're not against development," Bright said. "We're against poor development."

Alisa Walterhoefer, who lives near the proposed development with her husband and two children, was also relieved.

"I didn't want suburbia encroaching on my quaint little property here," she said, adding that the proposed development would have looked ugly, caused traffic problems, and destroyed the "quaintness" and "tranquility" that brought her and her husband to the district 15 years ago.

For now, Graystone Community, off College Avenue, is the only townhouse development in the historic district. It was built in 1991. Graystone consists of 28 townhouses and is considered a blight on the historic district by purists such as Bright. When it was mentioned at yesterday's meeting, Taylor called it a "mistake."

Commission members were concerned that Pfau's proposed materials -- which included vinyl shutters and steel doors -- would not fit into the architecture of the historic district. They worried that the decks would be visible from Main Street, that the facade of the townhouses was too uniform and that the development would detract from the 70-year-old stone structure on the property.

"It would have impact on the visual and overall ambience of Ellicott City," said Janice Menear, a commission member from Elkridge.

"The facade doesn't have any breaks in it," said Robert B. Williams of Clarksville, another member. "I don't think there's any other structure in Ellicott City without breaks. Ellicott City wasn't built like townhouses or rowhouses in Baltimore that were built a block at a time." He also worried that "there is nothing in this design that goes along with this granite house that's there."

Charles E. Hogg, another commission member, said he worried about residents and tourists getting out of their cars in a nearby public parking lot and seeing the development's wooden decks.

"That's really not what old town is meant to be," he said.

The site is zoned for townhouses, Bockmiller said; the historic district commission does not have the authority to overturn that zoning. It can only review and reject specific site plans based on their architecture, landscaping and impact on the historic district, he said.

Williams said he wouldn't mind seeing townhouses on the site as long as they blend in with historic Ellicott City.

"I'd like to have more townhouses," he said. "I don't think there's anything wrong with that."

Pfau has said in the past that he was aiming for "a homey, !B villagey type of feeling." Commission members weren't convinced.

Williams described it as a "cookie-cutter" operation, and Taylor paid the proposal an even worse insult, by Ellicott City standards.

"This was very much, in my opinion, a Columbia-style development," he said.

Pub Date: 11/24/98

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