House shows cracks in landmark status

Ruxton: A builder says Baltimore County's haphazard preservation process interferes with his plans to raze an old bungalow.

January 31, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

A little bungalow in Ruxton is creating some big problems.

Residents, seeking to preserve the character of their old, upper-crust neighborhood, are using the county's landmarks preservation process to try to stop a developer from knocking down the bungalow and building four houses in its place - an increasingly common practice as lots become scarce and established communities more desirable.

But the developer, Melvin Benhoff, argues that the house is not historic and that the case illustrates the haphazard way Baltimore County has conducted its preservation business for years. He said the county has denied him due process, has failed to follow its own laws and might rob him of the value of his property without compensation.

The house is an Arts and Crafts-style bungalow built between 1900 and 1915. It has a gently sloping slate roof with wide dormers and six-pane windows.

What is particularly unusual about it, preservation backers say, is its shape and orientation. It is almost a perfect cube and is set on the diagonal so it faces the corner of Berwick Road and Locust Avenue. It mirrors a companion house nearby on LaBelle Avenue, whose owners are also seeking landmark status.

Biff Hearn, president of the Ruxton, Riderwood, Lake Roland Area Improvement Association, said the community had expected for some time that two new houses would be built on the lot, with the bungalow preserved. He called the demolition plans a "distressing surprise."

"This old house and property had existed and been used in the same way for 90 years," Hearn said. "Instead of the defining presence of one of the original houses in the neighborhood with two new infill houses, there would now be four new homes covering an entire half-block, destroying the contextual fabric of the neighborhood."

What is not particularly significant about the house, Benhoff's attorneys and architect say, is that its original wooden siding has been replaced with aluminum. It lacks ornamentation characteristic of Arts and Crafts homes, such as exposed rafter tails and joists. Its original windows have been replaced. Its front door and porch have been altered, and sliding glass doors have been added in back.

"Really, it's a middling type of house that was put up in 1900," said David H. Gleason, an architect hired to examine the property for Benhoff. "There are other examples of that style of architecture that are more significant and certainly more spectacular" in the area.

If the landmarks commission recommends the house be put on the county's landmarks list, the decision rests with the County Council. The house is in the district of Council Chairman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat, so he would have the most influence on whether the house is protected. He said he's waiting to hear what the commission says before making a decision.

Benhoff, the owner of Benhoff Builders Inc. in Cockeysville, bought the house and its 1.12-acre lot, assessed at $456,166, for $1 million last August. He applied for a demolition permit that was approved by various officials, including the county historian. The house didn't appear on any national, state or local historical inventories or preservation lists.

That, according to critics of county landmarks practices, is where things started to go awry.

Neighbors, upset at Benhoff's plan, applied to the Maryland Historical Trust and got the house listed on its inventory, which, under county practices, forces a hearing with the zoning commissioner before razing.

Unintended impact

But the Maryland Historical Trust never intended its inventory to have any regulatory impact, said J. Rodney Little, the trust's director. Properties on the inventory do not go through a rigorous examination, and property owners are not given due process or opportunity to challenge listings because those listings, by definition, have no effect on property rights.

"Baltimore County has taken that list, that at the state level has no legal consequences, and has turned it into something at the local level that does have legal consequences," Little said. "That's something our office does not favor."

County spokeswoman Elise Armacost said the legal basis for the hearing comes from the county code, which specifically refers to the Maryland Historic Trust inventory. Although the hearing does present some burden to property owners, she said, it has proven effective in preventing community outcry over demolition or changes to historic structures.

Once the county learned of the historical trust designation for the bungalow, it put the building permit on hold pending the zoning commissioner's hearing. And the neighborhood association nominated the house for consideration by the landmarks preservation commission, which can be done against the property owner's will.

"This is one of the earliest houses in the Ruxton Heights development and a key neighborhood landmark," Hearn said.

Legal questions

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