Move is on to clear up historic site rules

Balto. County process frustrates developers and preservationists

May 03, 1999|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

Seeking to reform a system criticized by developers and preservationists alike, a Baltimore County group is drafting a plan it says would eliminate confusion in how the county protects historic properties.

The volunteer committee -- formed last year by the county after a series of disputed demolitions -- would revamp county historical preservation law by setting up three classes of historic properties with three levels of protection. The group is nearing consensus on a plan as existing law is being challenged as unconstitutional.

Using $125,000 in state and county money, the committee also is overseeing selection of a consultant who will begin surveying an initial batch of 500 buildings to determine whether they are historic and worthy of saving or old and expendable.

"It would be fair to say the regulations are messed up. People are tearing down houses rather than getting involved in the process," said David S. Thaler, a civil engineer who is chairman of the committee. Thaler added, "I think there is a shot at straightening it out."

Preservationists have complained that buildings they consider historic have been torn down, while developers and property owners complain of increased paperwork and delays.

A lawsuit filed recently by owners of an 84-year-old house in Perry Hall seemed to further highlight the system's shortcomings. In a memo- randum, County Attorney Virginia W. Barnhart noted that the suit could "definitively answer" questions about an acknowledged glitch in county code that deprives property owners of "due process."

At a meeting Wednesday night, committee members focused on a plan to divide historic properties into three classes.

Alterations to the most historically significant buildings would be prohibited unless approved by the county's Landmarks Preservation Commission. The other two classes of historic structures would be subject to less stringent restrictions. The Landmarks Preservation Commission would likely have final say on the classification of the properties, with the County Council giving its approval for the most restrictive class.

The committee began meeting in September, after County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger included $100,000 in his budget to hire a consultant to begin taking stock of potentially historic properties.

A $25,000 state grant also will be used to hire the consultant. County officials hope to classify properties before the debate on a given building is muddied by opposition to a related development proposal.

Ruppersberger took action after the demolitions of buildings such as the Colonial-era Samuel Owings House raised questions about the county's willingness and ability to balance the desire for economic development with the responsibility to protect its historic landmarks.

The committee, initially mired in the bureaucratic implications of changing the regulations, has recently moved closer to a consensus.

"Given the complexity of the issue, I'm not surprised it took this long," said Judith Kremen, an official with the Baltimore County Historical Trust and a member of the committee.

As the committee's work began to move forward, a lawsuit by the owners of the home in Perry Hall seemed ready to force the issue.

In the suit, filed last month in Baltimore County Circuit Court, a group of property owners asked a judge to rule that they are entitled to a permit to raze their building, known as the Dietz House. The two-story farmhouse is on a 20-acre lot that would be developed to include a supermarket, according to county records.

Last year, members of a Perry Hall community organization nominated the house -- and two neighboring buildings on the site of a proposed drugstore -- to be declared protected county landmarks. The Landmarks Preservation Commission declined.

"The popular opinion on the landmarks commission is that people only bring things in to stop development," said John Chalk, a member of the commission and of the committee headed by Thaler.

David Marks, president of the Perry Hall Improvement Association, said the buildings were the last remaining from the area's Germantown era, the post-Civil War period when parcels of the vast Perry Hall estate were sold to German immigrant families.

Three years ago, state highway officials steered the widening of Belair Road around the properties, which include a turn-of-the-century embroidery company building, because they are listed on the Maryland Historical Trust's inventory.

"It's completely ironic," Marks said, adding that he expects the buildings will be demolished. "Clearly there was a lot of effort that went into protecting those structures, and now the county is going to allow them to simply be destroyed."

Marks added, "The saddest part of this whole experience is that two of Perry Hall's founding families seem so eager to obliterate a part of our local history."

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