Merger of preservation panel, Planning Dept. advances

City Council vote is next

Foes of proposal unhappy

August 09, 2005|By William Wan | William Wan,SUN STAFF

Over the protests of preservationists, a City Council committee approved a proposal last night to merge Baltimore's historic preservation commission with the city Planning Department.

In the bill that now goes to the full City Council for approval, the committee left out amendments urged by the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation - an omission that critics say will strip the commission of its power.

"It feels like someone's trying to put a lid on us," Judith Miller, chairwoman of the CHAP board, said after the Urban Affairs Committee's 3-1 vote, with one abstention. "We think we have protected Baltimore very well for 41 years. ... They should let us do our work."

Councilwoman Paula Johnson Branch, the committee chair, said the historic preservation commission and other interested parties would have at least two more opportunities to seek amendments before a final council vote.

Established in 1964 as an independent agency, the commission has authority over exterior changes to buildings in 30 historic districts. Its powers also include adding buildings to the city's landmark list and designating areas as historic districts. The commission, a panel of volunteers, holds public hearings, takes formal action and has city employees on staff.

Last year, the commission's city employees were moved from the Housing Department to the Planning Department on orders from Mayor Martin O'Malley.

The bill was introduced to formalize the shift to the Planning Department and make other changes.

But commission officials and allied activists say many of the proposed changes will hurt historic preservation in Baltimore. One change added last night would allow the mayor to appoint the board chair instead of having the board continue to elect its chair.

The commission also objected last night to the proposed composition of the 11-member board, which under the bill would include one African-American historian but no overall expert in Baltimore's history. Also, commission officials and preservationists said, the bill calls for only one architect on the board.

"You really need two architects on that board," said Romaine Somerville, former executive director of the commission. "The business of the board is reading architectural plans. If the board only has one architect and he can't make a meeting, you have no expertise."

The committee also turned down language proposed by the commission, Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke and preservationists that would stipulate that the commission remain an independent unit from the Planning Department.

The bill will be taken up at a City Council meeting Monday, Branch said.

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