Preserving our past

November 07, 2005|By PATRICIA BENTZ AND TYLER GEARHART

Under the cloak of darkness, another piece of Baltimore County history was stolen from its citizens. As with the clandestine departure of the Baltimore Colts, many are left wondering what exactly went wrong.

The Elizabeth Gardner House, formerly at York and Shawan roads, was demolished Oct. 11 to make way for a 3,800-square-foot BB&T Bank. How hypocritical that an organization that prides itself on community consciousness and whose roots go back to the 1870s, just as the Gardner House, should feel the need to sidestep the appeals process and bulldoze the home before all of the legal options had an opportunity to run their course.

The process that allowed this to happen highlights the deficiencies in Baltimore County's preservation laws.

In the case of the Gardner House, the professional staff to the county Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) was not allowed to present information to the commissioners on the building's historic and architectural significance, as is the normal procedure. The LPC ruled in March that the house was not an historic landmark.

Historically, the home was part of the Marble Hill community at the junction of the York and Western Run turnpikes. Architecturally, the home was a well-preserved example of the Queen Anne-style structures that were prominent in the late 19th century.

Without the benefit of a briefing on the significance of the building, the LPC, in a split decision, voted against designating the Gardner House as a protected landmark. The zoning commissioner subsequently fast-tracked a demolition permit for the building.

With the landmark and permit processes clearly circumvented, the Baltimore County Historical Trust appealed those decisions to the Board of Appeals. At the time of the appeal, the director of the Department of Permits and Management, Timothy M. Kotroco, stated that no demolition permit would be issued until the resolution of the appeal process. Regrettably, he then purposely issued the permit with the case still pending.

One hopes that we can learn from these mistakes and stop the unnecessary destruction of our historic resources. A comprehensive survey of the undesignated historic buildings needs to be completed to identify the estimated 3 percent of the county's buildings stock that is historically and/or architecturally significant.

Laws must be updated to a clear and enforceable system of protection. Owners of those historic structures should be notified to ensure that they are aware of landmark designation process and the benefits and restrictions that go with it. Finally, incentives, such as tax credits and abatements for owners of historic properties, must be meaningful and user-friendly.

Baltimore County government has become known as developer-controlled and weak on preservation. It should be encouraging the preservation of historic structures that provide a link to our shared history, enhance the quality of life, build civic pride and contribute to the tax base. With clear and effective preservation laws in place, we can avoid pre-emptive destruction of such cultural gems as the Gardner House, the Samuel Owings House and the next historic landmark that happens to stand in the way of "progress."

Two county task forces had been convened to address these issues.

In 2001, County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, now a congressman, appointed a commission that recommended clarifying and strengthening the county's preservation program. The recommendations went nowhere.

More recently, County Executive James T. Smith Jr. appointed a task force to recommend how to create a more effective tax incentive for rehabilitation of historic properties. As members of the task force, we expressed a desire to address the broader problems with the county preservation program but were directed to focus only on the tax credit.

Mr. Smith has a played an important role in the preservation of the Greenspring and Worthington valleys and often has expressed support for historic preservation. But the series of events that led to the demolition of the Gardner House belied his words. If his signature renaissance program aimed at revitalizing older and historic communities is to be successful, we must address the deficiencies in the preservation laws.

In the wake of the Gardner House demolition, Mr. Smith should work with the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the County Council to make the necessary fixes now.

Baltimore County needs, and its residents deserve, an effective, predictable and credible program to identify and protect its historic resources. Preservationists, developers and politicians should all be able to agree on that.

Patricia Bentz is executive director of the Baltimore County Historical Trust. Her e-mail is bcht@bcpl.net. Tyler Gearhart is executive director of Preservation Maryland. His e-mail is tgearhart@preservationmaryland.org.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.