Relay residents in a tussle over historic status


In the beginning, a "relay" of fresh horses waited there to pull early trains on the second half of the trip between Baltimore and Ellicott City. It later became a busy stop on the B&O line, and the village that emerged contained enough architectural gems to make it one of nine official historic districts in Baltimore County.

Then, Trisha and Dave Hope put vinyl siding on their house. Right in the middle of Relay.

That home improvement project has sparked an effort to do away with the southwestern Baltimore County neighborhood's historic status. County officials say that not only have they never seen a movement like it but that they also have never devised a process to deal with such a possibility.

"It was never felt that there would be a need to undo a historic district designation," said Tim Dugan, chief of preservation services in the county's Office of Planning. "An area is not going to be less historic than it was."

FOR THE RECORD - An article Sunday about the Baltimore County community of Relay's designation as a historic district incorrectly described one resident's involvement. Sheila Muccio, a former chairwoman of Relay's historic district committee, did not live in the community when residents there petitioned for its historic status, but she supports retaining that designation.
The Sun regrets the errors.

The struggle between preserving historic areas and maintaining property rights has played out in dozens of communities from Colorado to Alabama, news accounts show. In 1997, a North Carolina Superior Court judge declared Charlotte's historic district "null and void," citing problems with signatures on the petition to create the historic district.

There are designated historic districts throughout Maryland, including in Howard and Carroll counties. But officials with Maryland's Historic Trust and the state Planning Department couldn't think of another example of a community seeking to have the designation removed, said Chuck Gates, a spokesman for the Planning Department.

A Baltimore County Council member says he might file legislation if he is convinced that enough residents want a change. Some in Relay are saying that being a historic district helps protect their area's charms. Others say the price in the loss of homeowners' rights is too much to pay.

But just about everyone agrees the debate has caused an uproar.

Sheila Muccio, who helped establish the historic district, describes the fight as "a huge quagmire of sniping neighbors."

"It got really personal," she said. "People got angry and confrontational really quickly, and that's unfortunate."

After all, in Relay, a community of fewer than 200 homes, neighbors have a book club, potluck dinners and an annual yard sale.

The community's historic status is featured prominently on neighborhood signs. And when Relay celebrated its 175th birthday last year, resident Theda Mayer wore a period costume while waving at the passing MARC trains.

To become a historic district, the county requires the agreement of the owners of 75 percent of the property in an area. Parts of Lutherville, Glyndon and Monkton, along with sections of the Sudbrook Park neighborhood in Pikesville, the Corbett neighborhood in Monkton, the Franklinville area near Kingsville, the Fieldstone area of Randallstown and Rippling Run Farm near Upperco have the designation.

Houses in these areas can't be torn down or changed on the outside without approval from the county's Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Some renovations make homeowners in the districts eligible for tax credits.

Preservationists say historic districts keep out incompatible developments, raise property values and help prevent neglect. Those opposed to them say they add a cumbersome process to restoring homes, add expense to making repairs and don't really help stabilize the area.

When Relay sought the distinction in 1996, the owners of 81 percent of the land - about 136 acres - signed the petition in support.

But the division about the title is now visible along the area's winding tree-lined streets. Some of those in favor of removing the historic district designation have orange bows tied around their mailboxes.

Among those displaying the protest ribbons are Trisha and Dave Hope.

The couple decided to hire a contractor to install new vinyl siding over 15-year-old German wood board last year. But before they began the work on their 100- year-old Victorian, they called the county and were told they didn't need a permit for the project.

They say they were never told to submit their plans to the Landmarks Preservation Commission. At least one person from the community called Baltimore County, which issued a stop-work order when the Hopes had about 75 percent of their new siding up. Trisha Hope was upset to learn that she, at least in theory, faced a potential $1,000 fine and 90-day jail term.

It also got her wondering whether others in the neighborhood had had similar experiences. She put up a sign in her yard and others around the community. "If you have been harassed by the historic committee let us know," one sign stated.

She said she received several calls of support from neighbors, who decided to form RHOAR - Relay Home Owners Against Restrictions.

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