Lines are drawn on historic districts

Process for distinction frustrates residents

May 27, 2007|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,Sun reporter

The first whiff of trouble was the application that relied on the support of a dead man.

Next came the accusations of gerrymandering.

Baltimore's Planning Commission didn't need to hear much more of Brick Hill's and Woodberry's appeals to become official city historic districts. With a scolding, the commission recently sent them both back to the drawing board.

"I hate to do this, but clearly [the petitions were] interpreted in a questionable and nebulous fashion," Chairman Peter Auchincloss told the disappointed neighborhood leaders and officials with the city's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation.

"Tighten this thing up, and bring it back to us fixed," he said.

The attempts of these communities to join Baltimore's list of protected districts reveal fundamental flaws with the long-standing system, critics say.

Neighborhood activists must persuade a majority of their peers to support becoming a district, and if they can't get enough signatures, they often redraw the district boundaries to leave out homeowners who are less than enthusiastic.

"Do you realize you're close to 50 percent and all of a sudden you start deleting areas that are opposed to it, to get to the 51 percent?" asks Bill Cunningham, a planning commissioner and former city councilman. "A very small group of people can push what they want through a neighborhood process."

Critics say basing a historic district's boundaries on politics rather than architecture defeats the point, which is preserving the integrity of Baltimore's older neighborhoods. They say CHAP must find a better, more authoritative way.

Two years ago, people in Brick Hill, a hillside enclave that overlooks the Jones Falls valley and Hampden, thought historic district designation was as good as theirs.

With only 25 homes in the neighborhood, and the man who owns 11 of them on their side, it looked as if they'd be breezing through the various public hearings. Then the man, George Depfer, died just before the first hearing.

His brother who inherited the property, Ray Depfer, wanted nothing to do with becoming a CHAP district. But last year when he arrived at the first hearing with an attorney, the preservation board waved the community's application along despite his protests.

"I'm not clear why CHAP staff or CHAP itself brushed by that," says City Solicitor George Nilson, who told the Planning Commission on May 17 that by approving the Brick Hill application with Depfer's opposition, it would be setting the city up for a lawsuit.

Depfer and his attorney listened in the audience as the commission voted to send the application back to CHAP.

His neighbors were there, too, the ones who hoped the historic designation would protect the cluster of brick-and-stone two-family homes built for mill workers in the late 1800s.

A few days later Dick Horne sat on his wooden front steps, listing all the things that drew him to Brick Hill. Near the top of the list: the community's stubborn timelessness.

"When no cars are up here, like when it snows, it really could be 1870," he says. "There's nothing here to give away the fact that it's the 20th century -- except the street lights."

Although he's disappointed with the outcome of his neighborhood's petition, Horne says he believes the city can't in good conscience create a district without majority approval.

His neighbor Agnes Molloy, who has lived in Brick Hill for 35 years, is less understanding. She believes that if the preservation board hadn't moved so slowly, it could have approved the petition while George Depfer was still alive.

She also doubts that with more populated prospective districts, officials bother to check who on the majority might have moved away or changed their minds during the months-long designation process. They don't, but with a mere 25 households in Brick Hill, the count change was impossible to miss.

"I find it hard to believe that in every other neighborhood in Baltimore things didn't change five million times," she says. "You can't tell me they kept track of every individual during that whole entire process."

Anna Trifillis, who's lived in her Brick Hill home for 40 years, opposes the historic district because she doesn't want anyone telling her what she can do with the property. What if, she says, she couldn't build her deck, a luxury she calls the treehouse because up there it's nothing but sky and wisteria?

"If someone told me I couldn't have that deck or delayed that deck, that wouldn't go," the retiree says. "I don't have two years to wait for someone to tell me whether I could put a bathroom someplace."

Shot down

Neighborhood leaders in Woodberry, a former mill village that spreads north and west from Brick Hill, have also been trying for years to become a historic district.

The Planning Commission shot down Woodberry's application the same evening that it denied Brick Hill.

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