Hopes dim on fate of 2 historic houses

Lisbon: Preservationists bemoan the likely demolition along the old National Road, and residents worry about what will take their place.

August 14, 2002|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

More than 100 people, worried about the impact of anticipated development along the historic National Road in western Howard County, discovered at a community meeting yesterday that there is little they can do to stop the demolition of two old houses that sit near the highway.

The Brantly Development Group is buying the 2.4-acre lot at the southeast corner of the Lisbon roundabout at Route 144 and Route 94. The lot is zoned for a wide range of commercial uses, and Brantly Chairman Hugh F. Cole Jr. said he has applied for a permit from the county to demolish two houses on the property closest to the intersection, while another house and a store will remain.

Much of Route 144, including the part that runs through Lisbon, follows the old National Road, the nation's first highway to the West.

Cole faced an often anxious group in the Lisbon fire hall, including preservationists concerned with the loss of the two nearly 200-year-old houses and many more residents concerned about what might replace them.

"The rumor of a truck stop probably has more people out than anything else," said Steve Swanhart, a Mount Airy resident and vice president of the Howard County Citizens Association. News that such a business might be built in Lisbon has circulated for a couple of months, worrying residents and prompting a petition. Swanhart said people believe "anything on the [traffic] circle makes things more treacherous."

Cole assured the audience that a truck stop would not fit on the property. He also said he has no specific plans for the land, although he did not rule out a gas station or another commercial venture. He said he is clearing off the property to make it appealing to potential tenants.

At the meeting, representatives of historical preservation groups, led by Preservation Howard County, lamented the possible loss of the two historic homes, which are vacant.

One, a log home, was used as a parsonage, according to Alice Reed Morrison, who surveyed the homes in her role as architectural historian for the Howard County planning and zoning department. The other building is a heavy timber frame house that once belonged to one of Lisbon's founders, Benjamin Franklin Barnes. The house has an elaborate staircase and a separate kitchen that was connected early on with a brick addition.

"They're very interesting and important structures, both architecturally and historically," Morrison said.

She added, "They are, structurally, wonderfully sound."

"They were built about the same time as the road was built," said National Road Association president Paul S. Bridge of Ellicott City. "It would be a shame to lose that aspect of the road itself - they're as much a part of the road as the dirt, the cement and, in the later years, the asphalt."

The two homes appear on an inventory of historic buildings in Howard County along with about 700 others, according to Morrison. But they do not have any designation that would protect them from being razed by their owner. While projects in the county's two designated historic districts - Ellicott City and Lawyers Hill in Elkridge - must be approved by a historic preservation committee, all other properties are subject to the owners' discretion within legal and safety limits.

"There is no protection in any way afforded" these houses, said Marsha McLaughlin, deputy director of the Howard County planning and zoning department.

Cole said the houses could not stay on the property because they would interfere with potential development. They also encroach on land belonging to the Maryland Department of Transportation, Cole said.

McLaughlin said that if a gas station is proposed for the site, a further review would be required, but noted that esthetic or historic objections would not be enough to stop such a project.

In the end, Cole offered to keep the community informed about his plans through e-mail and more public meetings.

"I want to cooperate, and that's why I'm here," Cole said. In the meantime, he said, he expects his permit to be approved soon and is prepared to start demolition.

"They are historic, and I don't want to see them torn down," said Mary Catherine Cochran, president of Preservation Howard County. Her board may discuss seeking an injunction, but their time to do so is short.

"There is not much I can do about it," she said.

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