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Councilman has qualms about city historic district


WESTMINSTER -- Westminster's planning commission approved creating a historic district zone within the city, but a City Council member who sits on the commission said he had strong reservations about the measure.

"As a councilman, I have been wrestling with this issue for some time," Stephen R. Chapin said. "The easiest thing would be to vote for it, but I'll vote against it. This is not to say that I won't change my mind."

The measure must be approved by the council before it can take effect, and it appears there could be considerable resistance to it.

Chapin said he had a number of concerns about the proposed district, ranging from its size -- half a square mile of the city's 5 1/2 square miles -- to the additional controls and regulations that would be imposed on private property owners.

The proposed ordinance would regulate any alternations to the exteriors of existing buildings or construction of new buildings in the area bounded by Western Maryland College to Washington Road along Main Street and including portions of Pennsylvania Avenue and East Green Street.

"Everything is more rules and regulations," Chapin said, explaining his philosophical opposition to the measure.

Chapin said he was the owner of two properties that would fall in the proposed historic district.

"When we get into personal property rights, we get into serious territory," he said.

Any changes would need approval from a five-member historic district commission. They would have 45 days to approve plans homeowners and builders submit.

These approvals would be in addition to any other building permits needed.

Chapin also said the size of the district "would be hard to police" and suggested that the historic district be established in stages, starting with the central part of downtown and expanding it as time passes.

Dean Camlin, a co-chairman of the Historic District Study Commission, said the committee looked at that idea but decided against it for a number of reasons.

He said Westminster does not have individual buildings of outstanding historic or architectural significance, but it does have a large number of older buildings.

Camlin, who is partner of Camlin/Arbaugh Architects, said Westminster is an "ensemble of buildings" and the intent of the committee was to preserve the "feel" of the city's buildings.

As proposed, the historic district will encompass the boundaries of Westminster as they were in 1896. Most of the buildings in the area are at least 50 years old.

The idea of having a historic district that grows over time didn't work in Bel Air, said Thomas Doerr, the co-chairman of the study committee.

"It just didn't make any sense in the case of Westminster," he said. "The character of the city is not represented in one building or a set of buildings. The character is really representative of a district in the city."

According to the language in the ordinance, the intention of creating a historic district is to preserve the heritage of the city, stabilize and improve property values, foster civic beauty and strengthen the local economy.

There are a number of historic districts throughout Maryland in cities such as Baltimore, Annapolis and Frederick.

Doerr pointed out that since the proposed Westminster district is rather large, there can be more latitude in what kind of architecture and alterations are acceptable.

Chapin also expressed concern that the members of the historic zoning commission would have too much power.

City Attorney John B. Walsh Jr. said any decision could be appealed to the state Circuit Court.

Now the council will act on the measure. Chapin said he would ask for another public hearing.

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