On a visit to the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum, it is possible to see on display carved ducks valued at hundreds and even thousands of dollars each alongside artifacts – rusted carving tools, spent shotgun cartridges, old wooden boxes and the like – dating to the late 1800s and early 1900s that are of substantially lesser value on the open market.
There's certainly an argument to be made, however, that such artifacts are of comparable cultural value, especially when displayed together in such a way as to tell the story of how people lived on the shores of the Susquehanna Flats in a long faded time.
Does that mean someone who owns a particularly valuable duck decoy is obliged to donate it to the museum for posterity? Does it mean the museum should pay full market value for the decoy? And what about the pre-plastic era spent shotgun shell that would add to a display featuring the decoy? Should the museum pay cash value on par with the value of the decoy because the shell is old and culturally significant, though worth much less on eBay?
The example may be theoretical, but such questions are fairly common, especially in this part of the country where some of the oldest buildings erected by European settlers were constructed.
The so-called Brick House at the western end of Gordon Street near the Liriodendron Mansion in Bel Air, for example, has been in private hands since it was built in the 1800s, but the current owner has been seeking a near market value sale to a government entity as a preferred option. A key sticking point has been the differing perspectives on the parts of the seller and prospective public buyers on what constitutes a reasonable price for the property.
It comes to light now that a much older building a short drive from the Brick House is under contract and likely to be demolished to make way for modern houses.
Known as the Joesting-Gorsuch House, the building is part of a 10-acre parcel owned by the Winters Run Golf Club and under contract to be sold for development. It is documented to have been built – at least part of it – well before the American Revolution, possibly as early as the late 1600s when the Bel Air area was wilderness.
It could well be the oldest house still standing in Harford County, pre-dating the Hays House in Bel Air by decades. This gives the structure a relatively high cultural value, having been built at a time when living in a remote area of Colonial America had a lot more in common with life in medieval Europe than with modern Maryland.
As for market value, it appears the house has little or none. The plan is to demolish the house, along with the landmark red barn on Tollgate Road near the golf club's entrance, to make way for a relatively small housing development.
So is the owner of the house obliged to donate or preserve it for posterity? Not really. That's kind of the point of private property. Private owners are allowed to do as they see fit with their land, or duck decoys or old shotgun shells.
Still, the Joesting-Gorsuch House is probably worth saving for posterity, but if that is to be done, those seeking to save it have an obligation to fairly compensate the owner, be it the golf club or the person contracted to make the purchase.
It may be possible to do what was done decades ago with the Hays House in Bel Air. That culturally and historically significant building was moved to its current location near Bel Air High School when the land it was on was slated for development.
Or the developer may see fit to restore the house, encumber it with preservation easements, and sell it as one of the homes in the planned new neighborhood.
Or some government entity could make an offer to buy the land and buildings outright.