Clash over rebuilding feared in Ellicott City

Panel must OK plans for modern or historic look on places damaged in fire

November 14, 1999|By Alice Lukens and Kris Antonelli | Alice Lukens and Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

On Thursday afternoon, longtime Ellicott City activist Sally Bright watched visitors return to historic Main Street after the fire Tuesday and compared them to funeral-goers paying their last respects.

Bright hoped she was being overly dramatic. The damaged buildings are expected to be rebuilt or repaired. But what they will look like may lead to a battle between modern convenience and historic integrity.

As happened in Annapolis after a fire in 1997 in that city's historic district, a property owner might clash with preservationists. Bright, an architectural purist, knows the battle could be fought down to the smallest detail, such as whether to use authentic materials on the new facades -- which she favors -- or more modern fireproof ones.

"Inside the building is one thing," she said. "Outside, maintain as authentic a look as possible."

Advocates like Bright have a powerful ally: Howard County's Historic District Commission.

The commission's seven members, appointed by the county executive, function as the connoisseurs of historical good taste. No project that involves a cosmetic revamping of a building exterior can begin without their approval.

"It is our responsibility to ensure that [new construction] blends in, and we will judge on the basis of whether it is in keeping with the character of the historic district," said commission member Joe Tieperman.

For them, the news from Main Street is good. Two of the four owners whose buildings burned said they have a deep interest in historic Ellicott City and vowed to save whatever they can. Two other owners could not be reached for comment.

Charles E. Wehland, owner of the building that housed Spring House Design, said he was pleased to discover he would not have to raze his building.

"There are some wonderful structural things in the building that would be irreplaceable," he said. He is most proud of trusses made of wood rather than metal.

Bruce T. Taylor, owner of three buildings that housed Rugs to Riches, Legends and the Nature Nook, was not so lucky. He said the buildings would have to be destroyed but he would work during the rebuilding process to keep them as appropriate as possible.

Joseph W. Rutter Jr., director of the Howard County Planning and Zoning Department, said building plans must be submitted to the commission 15 days before its regularly scheduled meeting and the meeting must be advertised at least seven days in advance.

The process, from the time architects begin their drawings until the final permits are approved, can take months, Rutter said.

Rutter said he did not expect long delays. "The Historic District Commission and the county regulatory [agency] will not be an issue," he said.

If experience is a guide, Bright's fears about the details may not be unfounded.

Often, after fires in historic districts such as Ellicott City, property owners and county officials bicker over how to rebuild.

It happened in Annapolis, after a six-alarm fire ravaged the historic district two years ago; it happened in Ellicott City after another six-alarm fire on Main Street 15 years ago.

Ronald B. Hollander tangled for months with the Annapolis Historic Preservation Commission. After the fire he applied for a permit from the city to have a bulding demolished because he believed it was a safety hazard.But preservationists complained to city officials, who denied the permit.

The city agreed to demolish the building in August 1998 after thunderstorms further damaged the brick facade and city officials worried about pedestrian safety.

The aftermath of Ellicott City's 1984 fire was less dramatic, but some bickering occurred.

Linda Fisher, co-owner of Fisher's Bakery on Main Street, said that fire destroyed her building. She said the county razed the building, which meant she and her husband were no longer eligible for restoration financing.

When it came time to rebuild, she felt the Historic District Commission was too strict.

"They were very demanding on the way the building should look," she said.

Rebuilding was expensive, she said. "We ended up with a new construction loan [interest rate] that was in excess of 15 percent," she said.

Bright hopes Tuesday's fire might lead people to think about another issue on Main Street: overhead power lines.

Bright believes they are unsafe. The power lines, she said, hampered the efforts of firefighters last week. She believes the power lines should be put underground.

Rose Maria Kendig, a spokeswoman for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., said it was unlikely anybody would be able to finance that. She said it would cost millions of dollars.

"The problem is, it is an historic street, so it has old wiring panels in front of the building," she said. "The whole system would have to be redone."

Wiring aside, Bright said she hopes this rebuilding will be as successful as the last.

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