County weighs office plan

Developer proposes building next to historic Woodlawn

Historic site may get modern neighbor


Woodlawn Manor - a 19th-century structure that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and adjacent to the Woodlawn Slave Quarters - soon might share its secluded spot off Bendix Road in Columbia with a large, modern office building.

A development plan submitted by owner D. Ronald Brasher would erect a 74,000-square-foot office condominium building beside the manor house and replace the tree-spotted lawns on the 5-acre site with parking lots.

But as the county's Department of Planning and Zoning prepares to weigh in on the plan, several citizens are asking county officials to consider the development's effects on the property, part of which is on Columbia Association open space.

Mary Catherine Cochran, president of Preservation Howard County, said Brasher is within his rights to develop the property. But, she said, "our biggest concern is that he is not doing the best job he can to protect that resource."

Brasher declined to comment for this article.

The development plan was set in motion when, during the county's 2004 comprehensive rezoning process, the property was rezoned from residential to heavy commercial use.

Preservationists were caught off guard by the rezoning, Cochran said, and did not raise their concerns at the time. She said there were no signs posted at the property about the proposed rezoning and no one recognized its seldom-referenced Old Annapolis Road address among the hundreds of properties considered in the countywide process.

Cochran said the planned office building would dwarf the manor house, spoil the historic setting of the house and slave quarters and destroy 200-year-old trees.

"There are ways to develop it much better and retain the historic nature," said J. William Miller, a Columbia resident who lived at Woodlawn and served as its caretaker when the Rouse Co. owned it in the 1970s.

In his testimony to the county's Historic District Commission, Miller called the property "one of Howard County's most unmolested Heritage Sites."

He said: "A more blatant disrespect for the site is difficult to imagine," and suggested several alternatives.

The developer could save some of the trees and better preserve the manor house setting by moving his building to the east end of the property, Miller said. He could make the structure taller and narrower, or he could replace it with several smaller structures, as was done at the nearby Dorsey Hall property.

Testimony by Miller and several other citizens will be forwarded to the subdivision review committee, said Steve Lafferty, deputy director of the Department of Planning and Zoning.

But Lafferty said the commission did not make any specific recommendations regarding the property.

The planning department also is considering a waiver that was submitted by the developer because the site does not have an access road that meets county requirements for commercial property.

Brasher has contacted the Department of Public Works about renting or buying county land to create a new, wider entrance if the waiver is not approved.

Preservationists have suggested the county use the right-of-way issue as leverage to encourage Brasher to create a more sensitive site plan.

Lafferty said such negotiations are not uncommon.

"With each step, there is an opportunity for a serious conversation with the developer about what is important for the development, for the regulations and for preservation," he said.

"People can meet the requirements in many ways," he said. "We try to be fair to the property owners as well as to the concerns that have been raised, such as [those discussed] at the Historic District Commission."

As the process moves forward, preservationists also have asked the County Council and county executive to examine the issue.

Councilman David A. Rakes, an east Columbia Democrat, said he is "very concerned" about threats to the county's historic structures, particularly to the Woodlawn Slave Quarters and other links to African-American history.

"It seems to me there needs to be some sort of effort to mount some discussion around this," he said.

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