Saving a town's identity

Uniontown: The Carroll County preservation commission struggles to protect the past of the state's only historic village.

August 17, 1999|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

Maryland's only historic village is slowly suffocating from neglect.

Local politicians call Uniontown the "Gem of Carroll County" but have repeatedly refused to fund preservation efforts. Newcomers remodel their homes without consulting the county's Historic Preservation Commission, a board that's hampered by troubles of its own. Several residents refuse to contribute to town costs, such as the antique streetlights that distinguish the village from nearby neighborhoods.

"We've reached a critical point," said Russ Clarke Jr., who has lived in Uniontown since 1962 and is secretary of the Carroll County Historic Preservation Commission.

"In the 1960s and '70s, people moved here because they were attracted by the village's potential. They wanted to restore the old houses," Clarke said. "Today, the homes are substantially preserved. People aren't coming to protect the past anymore, they're coming because they're attracted to what's here. Unfortunately, they don't always know what it means to live in a historic district."

Uniontown was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in January 1986, nearly 16 years after the county preservation commission was created to protect Carroll's historic districts. The only one is Uniontown. But newcomers often settle in the village without realizing significant restrictions govern what they can and cannot do to their properties.

The lack of communication has led to more than a few squabbles, pitting neighbor against neighbor. Members of the preservation commission -- all of whom live in the village along a one-mile stretch of Uniontown Road -- must chastise friends for installing modern amenities, such as hot tubs and modern light fixtures.

"A lot of people look at this commission as more adversarial than beneficial," said Richard Mollett, who was asked to appear before the board last month after a neighbor noticed a hot tub behind his house. "Until that perception is changed, it will be hard for this commission to be successful."

He suggested the commission hold a town meeting or distribute a newsletter detailing the history of Uniontown and what it means to be a historic district. The panel embraced the idea, but might not be able to make it a reality.

Despite repeated efforts to court the Board of County Commissioners, the panel has been unable to garner support. The preservation commission works without a budget, and the strain is beginning to show.

The commission is operating with half its staff. Two members and one alternate resigned in recent months, leaving three people to do the work of six.

Unable to find enough candidates in Uniontown to fill the vacancies, the search for commission members has stretched beyond the borders of Carroll County. Someone from Pennsylvania is being courted.

The tale is all too familiar to David R. Bennett, president of the Uniontown Improvement Association. He has been having trouble finding anyone willing to take on a leadership role in the village.

For nearly a year, Bennett has been trying to resign. He established a nominating committee, advertised for a successor and talked to friends and neighbors about the job, all to no avail.

"Most of the people in town are elderly," Bennett said. "It's hard for them to be actively involved, and many of the newcomers don't have the time. They commute to Baltimore to earn a living, so it falls to a handful of people to do all the work."

`Out of sight, out of mind'

The small number of volunteers can't keep up. Bills must be mailed, funds collected, letters written. The social event of the season, the Christmas house tour, has to be organized. All of this must be done on a shoestring budget.

"We're out of sight, out of mind, as far as the county is concerned. And we have no tax base, so we have to rely on contributions," Bennett said. "Trouble is, we have no enforcement power, so it's hard to get contributions. Last year, the bill for the lights was $25 per household, but some people didn't pay."

The lack of support has a few of the town's 207 villagers toying with the notion of incorporation, which would allow for elections, taxes and enforcement. It is not a novel idea.

Over the years, Uniontown residents twice incorporated the sliver of a village. But the demands of running a municipality proved to be too much.

In the town election of April 1863, one of the men voted into office refused to serve and the government was neglected. It was revived in 1876, but within months fell apart again.

`No place like it'

"I'm interested in keeping Uniontown as it is, but I'm not sure incorporation is the answer," said Barbara Childs, who has lived in the village since 1955. "I think there are other things we could do that would make a bigger difference. Years ago, people swept their walks daily. They raked the leaves and shoveled the snow. These days, everyone seems too busy to bother."

Added her neighbor, Dorothy Fritz: "It's a shame. Uniontown is special -- a quiet town, a pretty town with tree-lined streets. There's no other place like it in Maryland."

Pub Date: 8/17/99

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