Poor protection

June 20, 2005|By Patricia Bentz and Melanie Anson

SOMETHING IS very wrong when the commission charged with protecting Baltimore County's historic structures instead gives developers the go-ahead to bulldoze them.

This happened recently when the county's Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) voted 5-3 not to accord landmark status to the Elizabeth Gardner House, an 1870s Queen Anne-style house on the southwest corner of York and Shawan roads. The owner plans to demolish one of the last vestiges of the area's history to build a BB&T Bank branch.

This LPC action is part of a pattern highlighting the problems that result from the appointment of commissioners who have little or no knowledge, experience or expertise in historic preservation.

LPC commissioners, who serve four-year terms, function as a tribunal to apply historic preservation law and protective national standards to projects that come before them each month. Baltimore County law states that LPC appointees "shall possess demonstrated interest, knowledge or training in historic preservation, history, architecture, conservation or related disciplines."

Yet County Executive James T. Smith Jr. and some members of the County Council too frequently have ignored this threshold standard. As a result, too many unqualified individuals have been appointed to the LPC, which has 13 members and two vacancies.

At the LPC's March meeting, two properties were on the agenda for the third time, having been postponed pending on-site review by several commissioners. The commissioners reported that they were not qualified to judge one of the properties and that they had gone to the wrong address on the other. Both projects were delayed yet another month, causing frustration and expense for the owners. Such ineptitude reflects poorly on the appointing politicians and the LPC.

Commissioners who are not versed in preservation principles also make incorrect decisions and create confusion when they misapply the standards.

For example, the LPC rejected historic listing for the Elizabeth Gardner House because vinyl siding had been added. Yet this same LPC has approved the addition of vinyl siding on homes that already were listed as historic. The applicable standards would dictate an opposite result: allowing historic designation of the Gardner House since it met other criteria and such additions could be removed, but disallowing the addition of vinyl siding and windows on previously designated historic homes.

This paucity of preservation knowledge among many commissioners is not merely embarrassing. It turns preservation law upside-down, diminishing the credibility and effectiveness of this important body and creating excess work for the few qualified commissioners, LPC staff and citizens who must labor to educate preservation novices to a point of functionality. The process of educating commissioners can take years, costing posterity the loss of irreplaceable parts of its heritage. The Elizabeth Gardner House is not an isolated example.

The Dr. Tracy House, a 19th-century farmhouse in the north of the county, is fated to be torn down for a new development. The property came before the LPC in March, but before testimony could begin, a commissioner moved to drop the item from consideration. Another commissioner questioned this, arguing that the historic farmhouse warranted protection. But the LPC voted 7-3 to approve the motion without any discussion on the merits.

Although the Dr. Tracy House had never been given a state historic inventory number, having that number is not a requirement for consideration as a historic property. Hundreds of potentially historic properties in Baltimore County do not have state inventory numbers because the county never fulfilled its pledge to conduct a comprehensive survey of them.

Of the more than 300,000 properties in Baltimore County, about 6,000 have pre-1945 structures that could be historically significant. Yet fewer than 300 (excluding structures in the county's historic districts) are officially protected as landmarks. Without landmark protection, qualifying historic structures will continue to be demolished.

If Baltimore County residents care about saving what is left of their rapidly disappearing heritage, they must demand that their politicians appoint only qualified members to the LPC and that LPC members fulfill their duty to recognize and protect the county's heritage. As a New York Times editorial noted soon after the demolition of New York's magnificent Penn Station: "We will probably be judged not by the monuments we build, but by those we have destroyed."

It is every citizen's duty to hold politicians and their appointees accountable.

Patricia Bentz is executive director of the Baltimore County Historical Trust Inc., and Melanie Anson is a member.

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