Battle of B-A-L-T-I-M-O-R-E still raging in Federal Hill Neighbors object to rooftop pylon


Seven months after the Schmoke administration sued Lane Berk for putting an orange pylon that spells B-A-L-T-I-M-O-R-E on her roof -- then reversed its stance and issued a permit for it -- some Federal Hill residents are still fighting to get the pylon out of their sight.

Three board members of the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association told the city's Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals this week that they object so strongly to the pylon that they will dip into the association treasury to help cover the costs of moving it from their view.

Their offer prompted Gia Blattermann, acting zoning board chairman, to ask Mrs. Berk to meet with the neighborhood leaders to try to figure out a way to relocate the controversial pylon so it can stay on the roof but not be visible from Montgomery Street.

"I don't understand why you can't reach a compromise," Ms. Blattermann told both parties at the end of a four-hour meeting.

Mrs. Berk had to appear before the zoning board because the three neighborhood association members and the association itself appealed a building permit issued Feb. 6 by the city housing department. The permit allows the 10-foot-tall pylon to stay on Mrs. Berk's roof at 210 E. Montgomery St.

The Department of Housing and Community Development granted the permit after Mrs. Berk testified in District Court about the "morass" she said she had to go through to obtain city approval to renovate her house and install the pylon, which she contends she erected as an expression of her love for Baltimore.

City officials had argued in court that the three-sided pylon was a sign and did not comply with guidelines for rooftop additions under the Montgomery urban renewal ordinance.

Mrs. Berk argued it was a work of art and did not need a permit.

The housing department reversed its stance and issued a permit after city Solicitor Neal M. Janey rendered an opinion that the pylon was not a sign but a covering for an elevator shaft inside the house. "Functioning as a covering, the pylon does not, in my opinion, contravene the zoning provisions regulating signs," Mr. Janey wrote on Nov. 14, 1991.

After the permit was issued, District Court Judge Alan Karlin dismissed the suit against Mrs. Berk. Under city law, however, aggrieved parties may challenge a permit before the zoning board. The appeal was filed by Richard Leitch, Charles Morton and Jerry Wachtel of the association.

Attorney Frederick Leiner and the residents told the board the pylon violates the renewal ordinance, which prohibits "contemporary elements" visible from Montgomery Street, unless they are approved by the housing commissioner.

The appellants said they believe the pylon sets a precedent that will encourage other homeowners and contractors to ignore the permit process and alter houses in ways that detract from the historic district.

"It's the precedent," said resident Charles Morton. "If you give way and allow people to do whatever they wish to do under the guise of art, where do you stop?"

Mr. Leiner said the appellants would be satisfied if the pylon were moved back on the roof so it's no longer visible from Montgomery Street. Association representatives estimated the move would cost $1,000 to $2,000 and said their group would be willing to contribute about $500 to help cover the cost.

Mrs. Berk said she is willing to consider moving the pylon. But she said she believes it weighs half a ton and can't be relocated elsewhere on the roof without a sturdy foundation, and that the total cost could be as much as $14,000.

Ms. Blattermann asked Mrs. Berk and the neighborhood leaders to get an engineer to provide more firm estimates for a move that would satisfy both parties and report back to the board within 30 days. "If it can be resolved, we'll all have a party on your deck," she told Mrs. Berk. "That would be the greatest moment of my career on this board."

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