The tiny town of Lisbon is clinging to its past in a way that few places in Howard County's fast-developing rural west can claim, but local planners believe that little of the old will survive in a community conveniently off Interstate 70.
Attempting to redirect fate, planners proposed a major change for the commercial crossroads: a less intense retail zoning that would eliminate many of the possible ways to use the land, including large developments such as gas stations and Wal-Marts that could move in only if 19th-century homes and hotels were demolished.
If they expected cheers, the planners were sorely disappointed.
The people who own the roughly 30 properties in the two blocks that make up "downtown" Lisbon rose up in protest, arguing that planners would hurt land values and the community in an attempt to save buildings at the expense of people. One landowner surveyed everyone to see how many were for and how many against, and all signed on the line to keep their zoning the way it is.
When Planning Director Marsha McLaughlin walked into the Lisbon Fire Hall two weeks ago in hopes of swaying minds, she was met with glares. After an hour of wrangling, she finally won applause -- by giving up.
"I admit defeat here," she said. "I am going to withdraw the proposal. ... The intent was never to threaten people's property values."
It was a powerful, if rare, reminder that residents can beat city hall, though the landowners were wary enough to ask for the promise in writing.
Some are worried that the issue is still hanging over them because ultimately the County Council, not the planning department, determines how land throughout Howard should be zoned. That decision won't come until the end of the year.
"I understand that they can do it," Lisbon landowner David Jenkins said darkly, "and then we can vote them out."
It is not hard to see why the planners considered Lisbon -- at Routes 94 and 144 -- when it came time to recommend rezonings. More than 100 people packed the fire hall last summer to protest plans for commercial development on the west side of town at a site with a pair of nearly 200-year-old homes. Earlier this year, a local preservation group put the crossroads community on its top 10 list of endangered historic sites.
Noting the town's popularity in the 19th century among vacationers and travelers bound for the West, McLaughlin told landowners that the buildings are a time capsule in a county that has replaced many old homes. Lisbon's lots were laid out in neat quarter-acres in 1822, and some surviving structures are even older.
According to Barbara W. Feaga, a local historian who grew up south of Lisbon, the majority of buildings in town were constructed between 1804 and 1850.
"This happens to be an unusual concentration of buildings where you can imagine what it was like" two centuries ago, McLaughlin said. "There aren't many places like this in the county."
But the people who have a financial stake in the future of Lisbon don't see how planners justify calling the town historic. Some of the buildings don't even date to World War II, they said. Some of the oldest have been renovated past recognition.
"The only thing that might be historic is a beam in the basement," said Joy Bloom, who owns two homes built about 1820.
"Just because something is old doesn't mean it has historic value," added Crystal Brumme Kimball, who runs a horse publication called The Equiery from a 49-year-old Lisbon building.
Roughly 18 acres had been proposed for "downzoning" from B-2 -- which allows nearly 100 retail-type uses by right or with permission -- to B-1, which permits almost 60 uses.
"I paid top dollar for B-2 because that's our retirement," said Anita Huff, who owns four lots in town.
Planners and landowners agree on one point: The very essence of Lisbon is at stake.
McLaughlin would love to see the buildings not only saved but restored and used. Some are run down and a couple are vacant. She told landowners that renovations in keeping with the history of the buildings can earn them tax credits.
But the landowners fear that reducing the ways that land can be used would trap the community in a downward spiral instead of giving it a hand up.
"You will kill the town," Huff said.
McLaughlin, who described the combative conversation in the fire hall as "a good, strong example of people speaking their minds," said planners probably should have sought out that input before they proposed rezoning the town.
But she is hopeful Lisbon's past has a place in its future. Shortly after the meeting, she sent the landowners information about tax credits for historical restorations.
"The history of this community is very, very old," McLaughlin said. "We'd like to avoid demolition."
Suggestions are fine from the landowners' point of view, as long as planners don't try to enforce their views on the town.
"By trying to fictionalize a quaint village there -- which it really isn't -- you're trying to take away its ability to be a major commerce center," Kimball told the planning director.