An ordinary decision to seek historic designation is threatening to disrupt the harmony of a picturesque West Baltimore neighborhood.
Hunting Ridge residents are sharply divided over whether the area should be named a historic district - a move that encourages preservation with tax breaks for home renovations but imposes strict regulations on how they are done.
Finally, 2 1/2 years and 36 community meetings later - one of which included a mediator - Hunting Ridge is a City Council vote from obtaining historic designation. Usually, such a process takes a year after a couple of neighborhood meetings and no outside help.
"There are people not talking to their neighbors because of this," said Ada Brown, president of the Hunting Ridge Community Assembly, which is pushing to win the designation.
Concerns about the designation sometimes arise but not quite like what has happened in Hunting Ridge, said Kathleen Kotarba, executive director of the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, which recommends whether areas should receive the status.
"Neighborhoods like Hunting Ridge often like the benefits of design guidelines, but that can be the controversial aspect of this," Kotarba said.
That disagreement was evident Thursday when the city Planning Commission heard from residents before it voted to accept CHAP's recommendation to grant Hunting Ridge the historic distinction.
Supporters argued the designation was needed to maintain the neighborhood's early 20th-century appeal, most evident in its housing - stucco, brick and stone-front Tudors, Colonials and Cape Cods, some with slate roofs and copper gutters and downspouts.
The historic designation would require that renovations be made with equally unique materials, despite today's preferences for less expensive vinyl siding, asphalt shingles and aluminum fixtures. In historic districts, CHAP approves all renovation requests.
Opponents argued that neighborhood leaders used unfair polling, or didn't bother to ask some residents, in deciding whether to pursue the designation. And some residents do not like having to ask permission from a city agency before making alterations to their home.
"This CHAP thing was really threatening to divide us, and still is," Brown said in an interview last week. "We just want to maintain the quality of our neighborhood."
City Council President Sheila Dixon, who lives on Winans Way in Hunting Ridge, addressed the Planning Commission in support of the historic designation, calling her neighborhood "a hidden jewel that people are just now finding out about."
Hunting Ridge is a treed area between Leakin Park and the Ten Hills community, just shy of the county line. It is a racially integrated area where more than 90 percent of the homes are owner-occupied. Many residents have been there for decades.
It is because of that stability that opponents argue the historic designation - which is similar to having community covenants - is not needed.
"This community has been doing well since 1922, and we don't need this now," Delano T. Washington of Winans Way told the Planning Commission.
Washington said residents who signed the petition in favor of the distinction weren't truthfully told what they were signing. And he said some streets in Hunting Ridge - those that are predominantly African-American and where there are mostly rowhouses instead of single-family homes - were not polled.
"If they poll everyone in the neighborhood fairly and people decided they wanted this designation then I wouldn't have a problem with it," Washington said after the meeting.
Brown said the reason the process has taken more than two years is that because after hearing polling complaints, the neighborhood assembly held several meetings to invite more comments. Some residents were given a chance to remove their names from the petition. So many on Brookwood Road changed their minds that the majority on that street now oppose the designation.
But Brown acknowledged that residents on some streets were not surveyed, and those were not given a chance to have their homes included in the designation request. However, she said that omission was not because of race, as Washington suggested. "We have 500 homes, and there was no way we could get the three or four people doing this to get to all those homes," she said.