Ellicott City Historic District

Joe Hauser, 57, a Fels Lane resident and Historic District Commission Chair, is organizing a petition drive to protest a proposed rental apartment development in the historic area. (Photo by Nate Pesce / January 11, 2014)

Joseph Hauser and Ed Lilley grew up on the same stretch of Valley Road in Ellicott City.

Though they're separated in age by about a decade, each has memories of exploring a more rugged Main Street, one that wasn't as polished as it is today.

Both made their way in adulthood to positions that promote and protect the historic district – Hauser as chair of the county's Historic District Commission and Lilley as a member of the town's newly formed Historic District Partnership and as the former Welcome Center manager.

Hauser and Lilley want what's best for their hometown, but the two differ slightly on the details.

In a transitional time of new development and big opportunities for old Ellicott City, their differences might reflect a common conversation among historic district residents interested in preserving – and improving – the little town that's been called the jewel of Howard County.

With several new housing developments planned within and around the historic district, some residents are drawing a line. Disrupt the charm of the old town, they say, and Ellicott City's appeal could suffer, too. They're starting a petition drive to ask the county not to have a stake in building and renting housing units in the historic district.

County officials, however, say they're working to revitalize the community by replacing stagnant housing with new options available to people from a range of incomes. They argue new residents in the historic district will translate to new customers for Main Street's shops and new participants invested in shaping the historic district's future for the better.

Changing landscapes

Plans for new housing in and around the historic district have been in motion for some time.

The 18-acre, 198-unit Burgess Mill Station apartment complex off of Ellicott Mills Drive recently replaced the low-income Hilltop housing community, built on that spot in the 1970s.

The complex, which also hosts the new Roger Carter Community Center and a 130-space underground parking garage, started filling units in October 2012 and now every apartment is leased, according to Housing Department Director Tom Carbo.

Burgess Mill Station is a mixed-income housing community, with 107 units rented at full market value and 91 units rented to moderate-income families and individuals at 30, 50 or 60 percent of the market rate, which ranges from $1,225 for a one-bedroom apartment to $2,200 for three bedrooms, according to the county.

Now that construction is finished and final landscaping touches are being added to the project, the county is shifting focus to two additional phases to the Burgess Mill project.

Phase II will see the demolition of the old Roger Carter Center, which still stands across the street from Burgess Mill Station. Renderings for the site show four colonial-style buildings, totaling 15 units, with navy blue siding, white trim, square columns and two brick chimneys in place of the center.

Up the road at the Ellicott Mills Terrace community, the county will raze the low-income housing currently located there and build 60 new mixed-income units with a garden-style layout of three 20-unit apartments.

Phase III is expected to bring housing down the hill to the base of Fels Lane, currently the location of parking lot F.

Carbo said plans for that site are still in their conceptual stages. The most recent plan – 76 housing units surrounding a parking lot of about 250 spaces, with potential for retail along the development's Main Street front – was presented to the community during a series of workshops last fall that focused on the revitalization of the Main Street area.

County Executive Ken Ulman said in a budget hearing last month that he had rejected that plan, and others, for being too intense for the historic district.

"I have sent back plans so many times because they need to be scaled down dramatically," Ulman said Dec. 18. "I think there is a real opportunity to create a community place [on the Lot F space]. … It's about making sure we're good stewards of that land. It's not as much the financial pressures as figuring out what the right plan is at that scale."

"It's a ways off, and we definitely want to keep moving and pursue Phase II and get that done," Carbo said of Phase III. "We're still working on developing plans and working out the costs."