Steel vs. wood: BGE, merchants favor opposite poles

Replacing two old posts raises historical concerns about Ellicott City street

August 02, 1999|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

Everybody agrees on one thing: Sooner or later, the aging wooden telephone poles on historic Ellicott City's Main Street have to go.

But some Ellicott City residents and merchants are angry that Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. decided to replace two of the wooden poles with ones made of, of all things, stainless steel, a decidedly modern material.

And they are even angrier that Joseph W. Rutter Jr., director of the county Department of Planning and Zoning, decided that BGE could install the two metal poles in the fall without letting the county's Historic District Commission vote on whether they would violate the historical integrity of the streetscape.

"Nobody's been given the chance to even say yes or no," said Adon Phillips, president of the Ellicott City Business Association. "We're not allowed due process of law."

Phillips conceded that two metal poles alone -- rust-colored ones at that, chosen in part because they resemble the color of the existing dark brown poles -- will not destroy Main Street's character.

But he said he worries about the precedent.

"If we lost all the poles, eventually we could lose out on a lot of money," he said.

"What I'm worried about more than anything is that it will be a devastating effect on the streetscape," said Barry Gibson, owner of the Forget-Me-Not Factory on Main Street.

Gibson knows the historic landscape as intimately as anyone, as he often stands on the sidewalk outside his shop for hours making gigantic bubbles that float into the parade of cars going up and down Main Street.

"Any substantial changes to the historic district will affect its historic perspective, character and function, because if you substantially change the historic district, it could possibly lose its historic status," said Richard Taylor, an Ellicott City resident and a member of the Historic District Commission.

Rutter's response to the criticism could be summed up in one word: Whoa.

He said the two poles need to be replaced for safety reasons, and the Historic District Commission doesn't get to vote on matters of routine maintenance.

"They are deteriorating," he said. "It needs to be done soon. In that respect, it is a safety issue. It is a reliability issue. There are a lot of people on these lines."

Rutter said one of the poles, a main feeder phone line to the 911 center, can't wait another winter: "It's rotted off."

The Historic District Commission can vote on how to replace the rest of the 40-year-old poles when the time comes, he said.

Rose Muhlhausen, a BGE spokeswoman, said BGE decided on stainless-steel poles because they won't take up as much sidewalk space as new wooden poles and will require less maintenance -- which means fewer BGE trucks clogging traffic on crowded Main Street.

A BGE representative will attend a Historic District Commission meeting Thursday night to discuss residents' concerns.

But residents still believe they didn't get their say.

"If they're nice, we love them," Taylor said. "But right now they're being forced upon us."

Pub Date: 8/02/99

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