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Howard County bills would expand Historic Preservation Commission oversight, limit zoning officials' discretion

A County Council public hearing last week on a pair of proposals by Councilwoman Liz Walsh focused largely on a bill that would give the Historic Preservation Commission more oversight over a proposed subdivisions — including a controversial project in Elkridge.

Walsh, a Democrat who represents portions of Ellicott City, last month proposed a measure that would expand the preservation commission’s oversight in some instances; and also filed a separate bill that she says would close “loopholes” in conservation regulations.

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Currently, the Historic Preservation Commission reviews projects and alterations proposed for historical properties and districts in Howard County, and has limited oversight duty — changes in properties are often required to receive a “certificate of approval” from the commission. But the county’s existing ordinance states that such approval isn’t needed when work is carried out “in accordance with an approved subdivision plan,” or in regard to tree clearing, construction of public streets and other features such as storm drains.

Walsh’s measure would remove those exemptions, giving the commission more oversight power. Advocates say the bill would give needed review to projects such as a proposed 17-unit single family subdivision being considered for a site in Lawyers Hill, an historic district off Interstate 95.

At the council’s Jan. 22 hearing, at least a dozen people testified in favor of Walsh’s bill citing the 8.76-acre Lawyers Hill project.

“Once the intention of a historic district has been destroyed, it can never recover,” said Michelle Kline, a Lawyers Hill resident who called the proposal a “cookie-cutter development” that would nearly double the number of homes in the district.

Drew Roth, a member of the preservation commissioner who lives in Lawyers Hill, said Walsh’s bill would give the commission’s authority more teeth. He warned that subdivisions in historic districts that are not developed in accordance with its guidelines “can completely undue that work in a single massive stroke.”

Those testifying in opposition to the bill included Edmund Pollard, the property owner of the Lawyers Hill tract who is working with developer Don Reuwer on the proposal. The plan had a hearing earlier this month at the preservation commission, and is scheduled for a second review in February.

A representative for the Maryland Building Industry Association also testified in opposition to the bill. Angelica Bailey, the groups’ vice president of government affairs, suggested the measure would “essentially [give] the Historic Preservation Commission the authority to stop any project in a historic district.”

“This would significantly and unnecessarily expand the Historic Preservation Commission's authority while creating inefficiency in the approval process,” she said.

Bailey also testified on the second bill proposed by Walsh, which would remove a clause the Department of Planning and Zoning uses to give exemption to some site developments regarding protection of wetlands, streams and steep slopes. Regulations generally restrict restrict disturbances in those areas, but the department can grant grant a waiver if it decides the work is a “necessary” disturbance.

The department does not track how often it lets developers use this exemption, but Stephanie Tuite, an engineer for the county, told council members she only approved one necessary disturbance in 2018.

Bailey said she felt the bill is not necessary because county planners are already careful about allowing work in protected areas.

“In our industry's experience, DPZ is fair and cautious in its analysis and does not grant many requests. If it is granted, it is truly necessary,” she said. She added that if the bill is approved, developers would have to solely rely on “alternative compliance, which is a much lengthier application process with different requirements.”

Lisa Markovitz, president of the People’s Voice, a local civic and political action group, testified in support of the bill, saying “regulations should protect the whole picture, a cohesive plan, that values the environment, safety and historic features, just as much as economics.”

“Protections that exist for those plans should take priority and thus, developments need to alter their puzzle pieces, not the alternative,” she said.

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The council is expected vote on the measures at its next legislative session is scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 4, at the George Howard Building, 3430 Courthouse Drive, Ellicott City.

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