Cracking the code

Preservation: Baltimore County must update list so that only truly historic properties get scrutiny.

November 09, 1999

DETAILS of the Thomas Fortune House demolition show the need for revision of Baltimore County's zoning code.

Historic preservationists decry the surreptitious demolition of the house. Opponents see the case as an example of bureaucracy run amok. Both groups may be correct.

The stone house in Timonium -- which was knocked down last month under cover of darkness -- was built 145 years ago by quarry owner Thomas Fortune, who supplied the blocks for the Washington Monument in the nation's capital. It was among 3,000 county properties on the Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties.

Although being listed shouldn't automatically confer historic prominence on a building, for reasons still unclear Baltimore County's code treats any building on the Maryland inventory as worth preserving. That ought to be changed.

In the meantime, owners who want to demolish a listed structure must go through a process that involves a hearing before a zoning commissioner. In the Fortune House case, the hearing officer approved the request to raze it just weeks after it was filed. Historic preservationists appealed.

Regulators withheld the demolition permit until the Board of Appeals could rule. Someone apparently was unwilling to wait; the building was bulldozed illegally around 3 a.m. on Oct. 16.

The sooner the county assesses which buildings merit protection and revises the code, the better. Until then, people can't take matters into their own hands and knock down a building without a permit -- whether the building is 100 years or 100 days old.

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