Preservation, property rights face off

Neighbors seek to rate vacant lot as historic

September 20, 2001|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

In a case that has escalated into a countywide fight pitting preservation against property rights, Baltimore County's Landmarks Preservation Commission will hear arguments tonight on whether a vacant lot can be brought into a historic district against the owner's will.

On one side are six homeowners on Parkton's Hillcrest Avenue who have put their late-19th-century Victorian homes into the county's historic preservation program but worry about the future of a 1-acre vacant lot in their midst. They want to create a district and incorporate the lot to prevent its owner from building a structure that isn't compatible with other houses on the street.

On the other side is the owner of the lot, Donald L. LaFond, who says his neighbors are attempting an unfair and dangerous abridgment of his property rights.

LaFond's case also has become something of a cause celebre among those who opposed last year's Senate Bill 509, County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger's failed suburban revitalization initiative that would have allowed the county to condemn land and turn it over to developers.

LaFond has collected more than 1,200 signatures on petitions opposing the district, some from the Parkton area but many from Essex and Dundalk, where S.B. 509 opposition was strongest.

"All these houses already have been declared historic as it is now, so they're protected," said LaFond, a 64-year-old retired State Department of Education worker. "The only advantage they get by forming a historic district is control over my lot to keep me from building anything I want to build."

But preservationists say that controlling the land around structures with landmark status is the whole point of historic districts. Such districts provide broad protection by giving the Landmarks Preservation Commission control over changes in the landscape that are incompatible with the rest of the neighborhood, said Tim Dugan, chief of planning services for the county.

"The vacant lot is surrounded by Victorian homes, and to try to maintain the character of the street, we feel it should be included," said Andrew W. Crosby, one of the homeowners attempting to form the district. "To exclude it would fragment the streetscape even more than it is now."

Crosby said proponents of the district have gathered several hundred signatures on petitions of their own.

The process of establishing a district begins when owners of at least 75 percent of the acreage in an area with historically significant properties petition the Landmarks Preservation Commission. If the commission decides the properties are of historic value and meet the criteria for owner interest, it forwards its recommendation to the county executive, who then sends it to the County Council for a final vote.

The neighborhood would seem to meet historic district criteria. The six houses are in the county preservation program, and the petitioners own more than 91 percent of the property in the proposed district.

Seven houses on the street, including LaFond's, date to the late 19th century when Parkton was a railroad town. They're all 2 1/2 -story Victorians with large windows, steep roofs and front porches facing down the hill toward the railroad tracks.

But the street isn't purely Victorian. There's a ranch-style home and a new two-story home at the north end, and toward the south end, LaFond's son built a home within the past few years.

LaFond argues that since the street has newer homes, the fate of his lot shouldn't be so critical. But Crosby and others say the property is important because it lies in the middle of the district, not on the fringes.

The dispute is the latest incarnation of a 20-year fight over upkeep of the neighborhood. County inspectors have come to LaFond's house a handful of times since the early 1980s to respond to complaints of trash, junked cars, boats and dilapidated structures on his property.

LaFond says the inspections are evidence of a long-running vendetta against him. Both sides say that as the dispute has escalated to involve lawyers, petitions, county commissions and politicians, Hillcrest Avenue has endured a summer filled with mistrust.

LaFond said he has no plans to put anything on the lot but acknowledges that someday he or one of his sons might want to build a house there.

Neighbors don't want to stop him from developing the land, said William B. Landis, who lives up the street. They just want to make sure whatever he builds is compatible with other structures in the neighborhood.

Landis likened historic preservation to zoning laws that control what people can do on their land.

"In general, it's seen as part of whatever the county does to control growth and protect the character of communities," he said.

The commission is scheduled to vote on the district at 7 p.m. today in the county courts building.

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