Historic landmark bill angers activists Balto. Co. proposal would limit appeals

December 18, 1998|By Melody Simmons and Dennis O'Brien | Melody Simmons and Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County residents would lose some power to challenge demolition or renovation of county-owned historic buildings under legislation introduced by the county executive under a schedule that leaves little time for public comment.

The move -- aimed at snuffing out controversy over the former Catonsville Middle School on Bloomsbury Avenue -- is the latest salvo in a battle over historic landmarks between County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger and preservationists.

The administration says it is trying to streamline the historic preservation law, but community activists say it would shut them out of the process.

The measure, to be voted on Jan. 4, would eliminate the right to appeal to the county Board of Appeals on any changes to about 24 county-owned historic properties. If passed, it would take effect after only one chance for public comment -- and just one week before the Bloomsbury Avenue case is to be heard by the board.

"I think this is a terrible precedent. It defeats the rights of citizens to have input in what happens to any county-owned historic structures," said J. Carroll Holzer, the lawyer for the group fighting the Bloomsbury Avenue project.

He said that community groups could still sue, but that Circuit Court suits are too expensive for most grass-roots organizations. And he said that if the law passes, he plans to take his case to the Board of Appeals next month.

But County Attorney Virginia W. Barnhart said the measure is intended to clear up ambiguities in the law over citizen appeal rights involving county property listed on the Landmark Preservation Commission's historic register.

Those properties include the old Court House in Towson, the Baltimore County Jail and the Dundalk Company Building, said Judith S. Kremen, executive director of the Baltimore County Historical Trust Inc.

The proposal would not affect cases involving privately held historic properties.

Critics say Ruppersberger's bill was placed on a legislative fast track, without sufficient public input. Generally, the public has a chance to comment on proposed legislation at a work session. But because of the holidays, there is no work session before the Jan. 4 vote.

Council members expect the bill to be discussed by preservationists during the portion of Monday's council meeting reserved for public comment.

Ruppersberger proposed the legislation hours after being sworn to his second term Dec. 7, as a way to speed up plans to convert the former Catonsville Middle School into a $6.3 million community recreation center. The project would require demolition of two wings added in 1928.

The executive moved last year to strengthen county historic preservation laws after he was criticized for failing to protect historic properties. He has clashed with preservationists over the 1996 razing of the Samuel Owings House in Owings Mills and the January demolition of the Maryvale Tenant House in Green Spring Valley.

Berchie Lee Manley, a former member of the council who has fought bitterly to keep the Bloomsbury Avenue school intact, yesterday urged the council "to deny passage of this unjust bill."

"The building belongs to the people, not the executive," Manley said. "Past executives have respected the citizens' rights. I urge Mr. Ruppersberger to reconsider and withdraw the bill."

Barnhart said the measure would clarify two sections of the county code, one that says citizens have a right to appeal to the Board of Appeals and another that says the County Council should have the last word.

"The Board of Appeals has suggested, without reaching a decision, that they have jurisdiction to hear appeals in issues like this, and this bill is offered to clarify what the appeal path will be," Barnhart said.

She said that citizen appeals of changes to county-owned historic structures are rare and that she knew of no appeals other than the one filed in the Catonsville case.

The school at the center of the fight was erected in 1925 as Catonsville High School and later used as a junior high and middle school. Vacant for eight years, the structure is home to hundreds of pigeons and is dirtied by debris from vandals who have smashed nearly all the glass in the building.

Some council members said yesterday they generally support the administration's bill, but many want a closer look before they vote.

"I think it clarifies an ambiguity in the existing law," said Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat.

Councilman Wayne M. Skinner, a Towson Republican, said he wants to ensure there is sufficient public input in the appeals process. He also questioned the need for a dual process for dealing with changes to historic properties, publicly or privately owned.

"I'm not saying it's a bad bill, but I want to look at it more closely on these issues," Skinner said. "Why have two standards? I'm not too comfortable about that. You're taking a decision of something with historic value to it, and instead of dealing with it on its merits, you're putting it into the political arena."

Council Chairman Stephen G. Sam Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat, who has been involved in the Bloomsbury dispute for years, supports the bill.

"The place is a mess, and those who are the most vocal in fighting it did not even attend the school," Moxley said.

"To top that off, the Catonsville area is in desperate need of a community center. We must move forward with what is right and stop using children as an excuse."

Pub Date: 12/18/98

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