Preservation Howard County has developed a reputation for being vigilant whenever a historic structure in the county is threatened

Fighting to keep history alive

April 05, 2006|By SANDY ALEXANDER | SANDY ALEXANDER,SUN REPORTER

At the end of a winding drive, not far from a county office building, a shopping center and a housing development, a small group stared intently at the crumbling remains of a small, three-century-old stone structure.

For the board members of Preservation Howard County, structures like the Woodlawn slave quarters - and other ramshackle barns, overgrown cemeteries and dusty old manor houses - are the true heart of Howard County.

"We have lost probably 70 percent of our historic resources to development, deterioration and demolition," said the group's president, Mary Catherine Cochran. "Anything we can do to save even those structures that don't seem significant is important."

It its six years, PHC has established a reputation for being vigilant, informed and seemingly ubiquitous whenever a historic structure is threatened in the county.

In addition to serving on the Columbia Association's task force to save the slave quarters, Cochran recently advised Howard Community College on its plans for the historic Belmont Conference Center in Elkridge and facilitated the purchase and relocation of a century-old Victorian house in Clarksville.

On Saturday, PHC will sponsor a day-long conference on Doughoregan Manor, once home to Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Carroll's descendants own the property and are considering several options as a historic easement expires next year.

The conference is the latest effort by PHC to get county residents involved in historic preservation.

The group has drawn attention to 21 deteriorating locations with its annual Top Ten Endangered Sites list - released each May - and highlighted good work with its Preservationists of the Year awards.

It has worked to update the county's long-neglected inventory of historic sites - using volunteers to track down hundreds of hidden ruins and unmarked addresses - and pushed for county funding of preservation projects.

It has become a resource for answers about the background of specific buildings, the zoning process, and grants and tax breaks for preservation activities.

The goal, said Fred Dorsey, a PHC board member, is not to take on restoration projects, but to be "more of a voice and an advocate for the historic sites."

Generally, people in Howard County support the idea of saving historic buildings, Cochran said.

But the county government has a limited amount of money and staff time to take on preservation projects. And for private owners, land is very valuable while old buildings are very expensive to rehabilitate and maintain.

"The county has very, very light historic preservation laws," Cochran said. " It is a very strong property-rights county. We do have to rely on the good graces [of owners.] It is fine line we walk."

Tyler Gearhart, executive director of Preservation Maryland, said "Howard County is not an easy place to be a preservationist. Development pressure there is as intense as anywhere in Maryland."

At the same time, Gearhart said, Doughoregan Manor and Belmont are two of the most important preservation issues in the state, and have national significance.

He said Preservation Howard County is doing a good job of being out front on those issues: "They have a very good reputation, and they realize the importance of a good reputation."

Cochran said PHC grew out of the county's process in 2000 to draft a 20-year general plan. One committee was established to examine preservation and conservation issues, and saw the need for a countywide advocacy group in addition to those working on individual preservation projects.

The committee's members - including Cochran and several others with an interest in public service - formed the nucleus of Preservation Howard County.

Today, the group obtains grants for specific projects and relies on donations from members for most of its roughly $12,000 budget. It has no offices and uses all volunteer labor, including active retirees, history buffs and individuals with deep family ties to Howard County.

But while PHC offers information, support and visibility, Cochran said preservation projects rely on groups and individuals who have "a burning, heartfelt interest in the property. ... We never get a good outcome unless we have a champion step forward."

County Executive James N. Robey called PHC "very forthcoming and professional to work with."

He added, "We don't agree with everything. They would like to see a lot more preserved than we have resources. ... But I have told Mary Catherine Cochran many times, don't ever change."

Still, not everyone is happy to see PHC get involved in their projects.

"I think they are a worthwhile organization. ... I think there is a point when they go too far," said D. Ronald Brasher, a partner in Woodlawn LLC.

Brasher said discussions with PHC and other advocates have led to some changes in his group's plan to put a 74,000-square-foot office condominium building beside the Woodlawn manor house off Bendix Road in Columbia.

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