Hunt Valley demolition jolts preservationists

October 13, 2005|By JOSH MITCHELL AND LISA GOLDBERG | JOSH MITCHELL AND LISA GOLDBERG,SUN REPORTERS

The 19th-century Elizabeth Gardner House in Hunt Valley is a pile of rubble, but the dust has yet to settle in the debate over how Baltimore County government allowed it to be demolished.

A crew tore down the Queen Anne-style house at York and Shawan roads Tuesday to make way for a bank. That action, after a county Board of Appeals ruling that paved the way for the demolition, incensed preservationists who wanted the structure protected as a historic landmark.

They criticized the county for granting a demolition permit within the 30-day window to appeal the Sept. 28 ruling to the county Circuit Court.

"It would be just like if I said to you, `There's an appeal process but you're going to be put in jail anyway,'" said Ruth Mascari of the Baltimore County Historical Trust.

"It's the Samuel Owings House all over again," she said referring to the 18th-century building that was demolished in 1996. A developer razed that building hours before a judge was scheduled to consider a last-ditch attempt to halt the project.

Yesterday, county officials defended their decision to issue the permit to demolish the Gardner house, saying the matter had already been ruled upon by the county Landmarks Preservation Commission, the zoning commissioner and the Board of Appeals.

"They had their day in court," County Attorney Jay L. Liner said of the preservationists. "It's not like they were blindsided or this was sprung upon them."

He added that the county wanted to avoid a legal confrontation with the landowner, York at Shawan LLC, which is under contract to sell the land to allow a branch of BB&T Bank to be built.

County officials said yesterday that there was some question of how their hearing process, which they said was set up to provide an extra outlet for community members to challenge a demolition decision, would hold up in court.

Lawyers for the owner of the property already talked about taking their case to a Circuit Court judge to force the issuance of a permit.

G. Scott Barhight, an attorney for York at Shawan LLC, said that had the county not issued the demolition permit, many more appeals could have been filed, potentially delaying the project for years.

"We certainly didn't want to go in circles for years," Barhight said. He added, "At some point, my client said enough was enough."

The Gardner House was built in the 1870s on land once owned by Samuel Worthington, whose estate stretched across a large swath of the county, according to the Baltimore County Historical Trust. He later sold the house to Elizabeth Gardner, who owned the house for about a year and sold it in 1877.

Located at the southwest corner of a busy intersection, the cream-colored house with green shutters and a wraparound porch was a constant reminder of the old beauty of Marble Hill, said Patricia L. Bentz, executive director of the historical trust. Marble Hill was the name of the small community at the intersection.

As she stood next to the pile of jagged wood pieces, shingles and pink insulation yesterday afternoon, she bemoaned the disappearance of another county relic.

"When you mention this house, everyone knows it. `Oh yeah, you mean that house with the big porch?'" she said.

The intersection is also the site of a service station and a shopping center, and just up the road from a string of fast-food restaurants. "It's the only thing left on these four corners that represents that era of Marble Hill," Bentz said. "Everything else has been commercialized."

But the county preservation commission, in a divided vote, ruled in March that the Gardner house did not belong on a list of county historic landmarks, which would have protected the structure from demolition.

A zoning commissioner also ruled in favor of the landowner, and on Sept. 28, the Board of Appeals ruled unanimously that it had no authority to prevent the structure from being razed.

Bentz said she had planned to ask the preservation commission at its meeting next week to hold another hearing about the house. If that didn't work, she said, she likely would have appealed the Board of Appeals ruling in Circuit Court.

She was surprised to get a phone call yesterday from a friend who said the building had been demolished.josh.mitchell@baltsun.com

lisa.goldberg@baltsun.com

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