I was fooled by the summer calm of old Lutherville, the Victorian village in Baltimore County that hides behind York Road, the Beltway and Interstate 83. On a cloudy morning, Lutherville's timeless homes seemed to be enjoying a July holiday, with abundant rose of Sharon bushes blooming near the rain-encouraged weeds.
But something else was sprouting on the lawns of old Lutherville: a crop of signs devoted to a neighborhood zoning issue.
It is a tricky issue. The longtime owners of the College Manor assisted-living complex want a zoning change that would enable them to build a new facility, move the residents into it, then renovate the old complex, portions of which are decades old.
But the Lutherville residents say that once a zoning change is enacted, it stays on the books and remains permanent should the property change hands. They also envision future development that a zoning change could bring in the federal and Baltimore County historic district.
"We had to crawl over glass to get that historic district status," said Lutherville resident Jim McGee as he discussed why the neighborhood remains wary of change.
The College Manor owners also live in the neighborhood and can claim a deep Lutherville lineage.
"I live in an old house, too, right in Lutherville," said Catherine "Bunny" Renaud, president of College Manor Corp. and granddaughter of William H. "Dinty" Moore III, who bought the old Maryland College for Women in 1928. "What we are proposing to build would fit the space where an old gymnasium stood."
Residents say they are worried about the fate of the extended College Manor property, an undeveloped greensward set squarely in the midst of their Victorian homes and a classic 19th-century railroad station.
It is not often I've encountered such a large piece of untouched land in the middle of a community. It would be easy to mistake it for a public park, but it was part of the campus of the Maryland College for Women — formerly Lutherville Female Academy — where students would ride their horses when they were not in class.
In fact, the community was founded as a kind of Victorian academic suburb, with the women's school up the hill from the railroad station (today's light rail) and surrounded by the teachers' homes. Soon came a summer hotel, and before long, Lutherville became an easy commute to downtown Baltimore.
It might be not much of an issue except that Lutherville residents are ready to wage war as a historic district and, like their counterparts in Annapolis and Fells Point, they are protective of what they call the "historic fabric" of the neighborhood.
The residents treasure their enclave of delightful villas and porchy houses that predate Baltimore County's prevailing rancher/split-level/townhouse norm.
They are a neighborly bunch, too, and regularly gather for Flamingo Fridays, a kind of moving cocktail party named in the spirit of the community's most famous son, filmmaker John Waters, who grew up in Lutherville in one of those landmark villas.
"We are in our watch-and-guard period," said Jane Allan Bowie, a resident who remains skeptical of rezoning. "We want to defend Lutherville because we look out at so much of what surrounds us. Look at the commercial mess that is York Road. This is why we are so apprehensive."
The owners of the assisted-living complex say they also understand the problems of being in a historically designated area with buildings that require constant maintenance and upgrading.
"We have one bank ready to support the project," said Renaud, who is also College Manor's director of nursing.
Her grandfather ran the building as a school until 1952, when the student population was in decline. He and his daughter then converted it into its present use, with residents living in the old academic building. The name "College" preserved part of its academic heritage.
"We would hope that we could get a protective covenant negotiated so that College Manor can do what it needs to do and that the community will be saved from later expansion," said Earl Pen Jones, a Lutherville resident and a veteran of many zoning and preservation battles. "We are not happy about a wholesale rezoning of this important part of Lutherville."