Historic preservation still a hot topic for advocates, Balto. County officials

November 14, 2005|By JOSH MITCHELL | JOSH MITCHELL,SUN REPORTER

A building that preservationists consider a landmark is demolished, and Baltimore County's top lawyer loses his job amid criticism of his handling of the matter. It's another reminder that historic preservation is a high-stakes issue in Baltimore County, according to elected leaders and political observers.

Just ask C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, whose tenure as county executive included an outcry over the demolition of the 18th-century Samuel Owings House.

"I had no authority on the Samuel Owings House being torn down, and yet I got the blame," said Ruppersberger, now a U.S. congressman. "I took a lot of heat for that, believe it."

Said County Councilman Kevin Kamenetz: "One instance does create a lasting impression, and I think that people will always associate the demise of the Samuel Owings House with Dutch Ruppersberger."

"During my 11 years on the council," he said, "there has always been controversy associated with historic structures."

County Attorney Jay L. Liner resigned Nov. 4 amid criticism of his role in approving the demolition of the 19th-century Elizabeth Gardner House in Hunt Valley.

Liner advised a county department last month to issue a permit for the demolition of the house before the time period had elapsed for preservationists to file a court appeal that might have prevented the building from being razed.

County Executive James T. Smith Jr. was said to be livid when he learned that the permit had been issued during the period allowed for appeals.

Smith imposed new controls on Liner's job, including that all of his decisions be reviewed by the county administrator, an arrangement that prompted Liner to quit, according to a high-ranking county official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the resignation is a personnel matter. Liner has declined to comment.

Preservationists were surprised by the demolition of the Gardner House and outraged by the county's handling of the issue. They saw it as another incident in a string of county missteps over historic structures in recent years.

In December 1997, less than two years after the Samuel Owings House episode, a 190-year-old Sudbrook Park cabin was demolished by a developer worried that preservation efforts would interfere with his plans for an assisted-living facility. The next month, a historically protected 19th-century house in the Green Spring Valley was razed after county officials mistakenly issued a demolition permit without conducting a required public hearing.

"We're not a second-rate county, and that's the way we're coming across - that we don't take pride in our past," said Patricia L. Bentz, executive director of the Baltimore County Historical Trust.

She and other preservationists say that dozens of older structures from as far back as the 1700s have been demolished over the years in favor of development.

About 3 percent of the structures left in Baltimore County were built before 1945, said John McGrain, the county government's historian.

"Everything else is post-war schlock that's been flung up and built since then," he said.

Donald I. Mohler, a spokesman for Smith, said the administration strongly supports preservation of older structures.

"You also try to be sensitive to the private property rights of individuals, which is such an important part of our nation's heritage," Mohler said. "It's this balancing act of preserving our rich historical past and at the same time being respectful of individual private property rights."

He pointed out that Smith has set up a task force to recommend how to create a more effective tax incentive for rehabilitation of historic properties.

The County Council recently approved legislation that toughened the penalties for demolishing historic buildings. And two councilmen said they are working on legislation dealing with preservation of historic structures.

But G. Scott Barhight, an attorney who has represented developers in battles over older structures, including the owner of the Gardner House, said some people will call buildings historic simply to stop an unpopular project from being built in its place.

Claiming a structure as a landmark "is being used as an anti-development tool more and more, much like the environment was used as an anti-development theme 10 years ago," Barhight said.

Under county law, someone who wants to protect a property as a historic landmark must argue before the county Landmarks Preservation Commission, which then votes on whether to put the property on a protected list. That list then goes before the County Council for approval.

Barhight said statutes on historic preservation "violate due process rights of property owners. You can have imposed upon you, against your will, a historic designation" that restricts what you can do with the property, he said.

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