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Bel Air town government should pass on purchase of historic house near Liriodendron mansion [Editorial]

Editorial from The Aegis

9:54 AM EST, January 30, 2013

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At any given time, it's fair to say there are at least a few properties on the market in Harford County that could be described as historic, if the definition of historic simply means old.

One such property was brought to the attention of the Bel Air Board of Town Commissioners last week when a representative of its owner approached the commissioners about the possibility of the town buying the mansion.

The house in question, owned by Judith Graybeal Eagle, is on 2.85 acres near the entrance to the Liriodendron Mansion, a noteworthy property owned by Harford County and operated as part of the county parks system. It is of simple brick construction, is 177 years old, encloses 3,500 square feet of living space and has been owned by only three families.

Given its relatively protected location surrounded by parkland even as it is convenient to the amenities of downtown Bel Air, it would be quite a find for the right buyer.

It remains to be seen, however, if the Bel Air town government is the right buyer. Yes, the house is old. Yes, it is stately. But does it rise to the level of being historically significant worthy of spending taxpayer money to protect?

That's subject to debate. Some properties are noteworthy for reasons that go way beyond simply being 100, or 150 or 200 years old.

A few years back, the county government purchased Tudor Hall, home of the Booth family of noted Shakespearean actors, as well as that family's most infamous son, presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth. When it comes to historic resonance, Tudor Hall has it, both in terms of cultural contribution and its place in U.S. history.

Many years before that, the county purchased the Liriodendron mansion, situated adjacent to the property being solicited to the Bel Air town government. That mansion was built in a historically noteworthy architectural style, that devised by 17th century philosopher Andrea Palladio. According to the online version of the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Palladian style is marked by "reason and by the principles of classical antiquity as it was known in surviving buildings and in the writings of the 1st-century-bc architect and theorist Vitruvius."

Furthermore, the Liriodendron was built by Dr. Howard Kelly as a summer home designed to remind his wife of her native Prussia. Dr. Kelly was a founder of Johns Hopkins Hospital, regarded as one of world's foremost medical facilities.

Then there's the matter that the Liriodendron mansion also came with a substantial amount of property that these days includes not only the mansion grounds, but also the Kelly Fields recreational facilities.

The Graybeal-Eagle property probably doesn't rise to this level of note in national or local history, though it does lay claim to having been built by a founder of the town, even though it remains technically outside the town limits. More likely, it is comparable to any of the dozen or so other old buildings along the town's main drags that are home to businesses, offices and apartments.

Clearly, the owners didn't regard it as being worthy of a high level of historic preservation. Though the property is on the National Register of Historic Places, it has not been encumbered with any historic preservation easements. This means there's nothing on the books to prevent the house from being demolished and the property re-developed; it is zoned for townhouses.

This reality was made clear to the Bel Air Town Commissioners when an asking price of $995,000 was presented.

The message is fairly clear: If the town doesn't buy the house, it runs the risk of seeing the property developed. This message has been received by many people who live in the town limits as a petition in support of the town buying the mansion had been signed by 50 people as of last week.

As a landmark of historic import, the property, while interesting, probably doesn't rise to the level of being worthy of spending taxpayer money to ensure its preservation. Similarly, the veiled threat of buy it or watch it be developed is more than a little bit off-putting.

All the same, however, as a public policy matter, two points are worth giving serious consideration before the town rules out buying the property. First, and probably of least importance, is that it hasn't been all that many years since the town commissioners purchased, for more than $1 million, the old Branch Bank and Trust Company building on Main Street next to the sheriff's office headquarters and then spent another quarter of a million to demolish the building and turn it into a few nicely landscaped parking spaces. Buying the property next to the Liriodendron Mansion would be a much more expedient use of public money, which leads into the second, and more prescient, argument in favor of buying the Graybeal-Eagle property, that being location.

The rule in real estate has been and always will be location. An acre on Manhattan at Midtown is worth an awful lot more than an acre in rice outside Stuttgart, Ark. Similarly, four plus acres in close proximity to a historic site that is a community gathering place, and surrounded by parkland, may well be worth preserving as part of the public trust through town expenditure.

Certainly, it is more worthy of purchase than the old Branch Bank and Trust building, which yielded relatively little in terms of taxpayer benefit.

The Graybeal-Eagle property, which was initially listed for $1.15 million, isn't selling for the $995,000 asking price. It may well be that the market value hasn't yet been reached, so the town could have some negotiating leverage that could end up bringing the price down.

Regardless of price, however, the town's relatively recent purchase of the Main Street property could well have exhausted any land-buying leeway the town has. If, however, the town has the financial wherewithal to buy the house, it would do well to give serious consideration to such a purchase.