Opponents of a planned town house development on the grounds of the historic Crittenton House in Hampden drove two hours to Calvert County on June 6, hoping to convince the Maryland Historical Trust to keep in place an easement that prohibits new construction on the 2.5-acre site.
But the trust’s 15-member board of directors voted unanimously to waive the prohibition, siding with developer John Brooks and representatives of Hamilton Bank, which owns the former site of a home for unwed mothers.
“The bank won,” said a disheartened Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who had lobbied the board to continue the prohibition on new construction. Clarke and three residents who live near Crittenton House came to the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum in St. Leonard, near Solomons Island, for the statewide board meeting.
Brooks, as the contract purchaser of the property, asked the trust to modify the easement to allow his project. He proposes to turn the original Civil War-era Crittenton House into 11 apartments. He also proposes razing a more modern former dormitory, built in the 1990s, and building 19 town houses in its place.
Clarke and many residents say the project would add to traffic and parking congestion in the area and would take away urban green space in a picturesque setting.
The Baltimore City Council on June 11approved landmark status for Crittenton House.
Clarke told the Maryland Historical Trust board at its hearing that residents prize green space — “maybe not in Calvert County,” but in Baltimore City, where “people will fight to the death for the green space that’s near their houses because there’s so precious little of it left.”
But Brooks told the board, “We feel our proposed plan is a nice compromise” between the neighbors’ concern and his desire to redevelop the property.
And Brooks was defended by Tim Hearn, of Colliers International, the broker that is representing the bank in the sale.
“He’s proposing something that can be very compatible with this historic structure,” Hearn told the board.
Board member Barrie Tilghman made a motion to modify the trust’s easement to allow new construction.
Several board members stressed that their decision would simply ensure that proposed development would get a public airing, and didn’t necessarily mean that the trust or Baltimore City’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation would ultimately support the project.
“These guys (Brooks and Hearn) have got to get it past the trust and CHAP,” said board member Al Luckenbach.
“This (board vote) just adds a little flexibility, as far as I can see,” he said.
The issue was added to the agenda after Clarke complained about the proposed development. Trust officials said they were caught off guard by community opposition.
“During the early stages of its conversations with the potential developer, the (review) committee was not aware of any community opposition; in fact, it believed that there was support for the project,” trust executive director J. Rodney Little told the board in a written synopsis.
“Originally, it looked to us like something that conceivably could be approved,” Little told the board members at the hearing. When officials learned the community was opposed, “we made a decision to bring it to the board.”
Litle said the trust gets 20 to 30 requests a month from easement property owners seeking approval for changes and alterations. Most requests can be handled administratively, and about half are denied or approved with conditions, he told the Messenger..
“In the overwhelming majority of cases, there isn’t any community opposition or concern,” Little told the board.
Trust officials said the flat prohibition on new construction is antiquated language from the 1960s that has been changed in recent years to allow modification of an easement to allow new construction if the trust agrees.
“We do take these on a case-by-case basis,” said Michael Day, deputy director and deputy state historic preservation officer.
The Crittenton case was unusual for the board in other ways, too.
“We have started this process for a contract purchaser,” Day said.
Testimony from the public, in this case including comments from Clarke and Brooks, is also rare in trust cases, officials said.
“Our (review) process doesn’t take into account community input, although obviously we’re concerned,” said Day, “otherwise we wouldn’t be here today.”
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