The devil's in details for historic panel

Commission draws praise, blame in preservation battles

May 24, 1999|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

In the annals of Annapolis history, some of the most contentious battles, involving multiple public hearings and droves of residents packed into City Hall, have been waged over the smallest causes -- signage, a gate installation, hanging flower baskets.

Inside the state capital's historic district, all modifications to buildings and property, no matter how minute, must be approved by the Historic Preservation Commission.

The HPC crew of seven members and a city staffer are ardent preservationists, well-schooled in the difference, for example, between Flemish bond and English bond brick-laying -- it's all in the way the bricks are alternated -- and are intent on applying such knowledge to preserve the charm of Colonial Annapolis.

They carefully watch over materials used, designs drawn and the style of renovations. They have outlined all the allowable materials, designs and renovations in a glossy, 68-page design manual that costs $10.

"We do get accused of being nit-picky or being the `taste police' sometimes," conceded David G. Blick, commission chairman. "But preservation has a benefit to the community. Even if people don't always agree with a decision that was made, in the long run, it helps preserve the uniqueness of a town and a local community and build the pride of the people who live there."

Annapolis' commission is not unique. The Maryland Historical Trust logs 40 such groups in the state and estimates there are more than 2,000 nationwide.

The Annapolis group was Maryland's first. It was established in 1953 with advisory powers and began regulating renovations and additions in the city in 1968. In the 1970s, other Maryland cities began forming similar organizations.

"Residents of many towns began to see their older neighborhoods change," explained Nicole Diehlmann, a preservation assistance coordinator for the Maryland Historical Trust. "Inappropriate alterations were made to historic structures while others were demolished. Residents saw local historic districting as a tool to protect their towns' unique character."

The economic benefit of preserving that character is enormous. The Annapolis Historic District, Diehlmann said, draws 2.25 million visitors annually "solely for reasons relating to heritage tourism." Within the last 20 years, property values in the historic district have appreciated faster than those outside it.

If the historic groups' mission sounds like a tame, tea-sipping, paper-shuffling task, in a city like Annapolis -- where preservation passions run high and multitudes of residents are unafraid to be vocal about keeping things the way they've been for centuries -- it can be anything but that.

In early 1998, for example, historic St. Anne's Parish, the establishment that put the word "Church" in Church Circle, wanted to double its space by excavating under its 1859 building. Historic Annapolis Foundation, the nonprofit group that advises the preservation commission, and numerous Annapolitans packed public hearings that lasted well into the night to protest the idea of disturbing the Colonial-era graves believed to be underneath the church.

The preservation commission took an informal vote and didn't approve the excavation.

St. Anne's withdrew its plan.

The commission also took steps that year to preserve the remains of a building damaged in a five-alarm Main Street fire in December 1997. When Ronald Hollander, who owned the 99-year-old building at 184 Main Street, applied to demolish the remaining facade, the panel said no.

An eight-month legal battle ensued, and city officials finally ordered the building razed in August after severe thunderstorms did more damage to the crumbling facade.

"I think we fought the good fight," Blick said. "But there's only so much we can do. We're still living with that today. It's kind of like when you smile and you're missing a front tooth. It just doesn't look as pretty as it used to."

Some recent debates have been as contentious. The Annapolis Business Association spent six months plodding through meetings and three public hearings to get permission to decorate city lampposts with hanging flower baskets. Several residents of Ward One, which includes the Historic District, railed against the baskets, which they said would clutter their quaint downtown. Some commission members questioned whether the baskets were in keeping with the Colonial style of the downtown area.

"From the strict preservationist's standpoint, that may be true," said Steve Sameris, president of the business association. "But we had no idea we'd be greeted with such a negative position from some of the concerned people in Ward One."

The proposal was approved last month after more than an hour of debate and testimony during a preservation commission meeting that stretched from 7: 30 p.m. to 1 a.m.

Some people who have gone before the panel wonder whether the process should be as time-consuming and as costly as it is.

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