Man wants lane out of historic district Sylvan resident leads campaign


An Ellicott City resident who ran afoul of the historic commission last year is leading a neighborhood effort to remove his street from the historic district.

County officials say the campaign is the first attempt by anyone to withdraw from the 20-year-old district.

Many homeowners on Sylvan Lane say they favor seceding from the district. Several have signed a petition requesting the change. The petition is being circulated by Tom Harman, 29, a resident who bought one of the 15 houses on Sylvan Lane last year and has since become embroiled in two public disputes with the Historic District Commission.

"Living in the historic district should be special, but it shouldn'tbe an inconvenience," Mr. Harman said.

"They tried to control construction on people's homes, and people don't like to be told what to do," said Mr. Harman, who angered the commission when he razed his Sylvan Lane house last year without its approval. He later tangled with the commission over a requirement that he install an expensive siding on the house he built on the site.

Mr. Harman said that in addition to the petition, which he will submit to the Department of Planning and Zoning, he will circulate a formal request for a zoning amendment to withdraw from the district. He said he hopes to file it with the county next month.

Marsha McLaughlin, deputy director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, said the request is necessary before such a change can be considered. Hearings would then be scheduled before the planning and zoning boards. The zoning board, which also sits as the County Council, has final say.

Other Sylvan Lane residents can sign a joint request to have their properties removed from the district. All would have the opportunity to testify at the hearings.

Mr. Harman, an engineer, said he is unhappy with the commission because it is autonomous and not bound by a higher authority. Most of the seven members lack knowledge or training in such fields as architecture and engineering, he said.

"They all have very good intentions, but there's no checks or balances, and they have no credentials except by appointment," Mr. Harman said.

The commission oversees exterior building repairs in the district. Members are appointed by the county executive -- and confirmed by the County Council -- for three-year terms.

Mr. Harman said he is also bothered by the amount of time needed to get approval for building repairs and what he calls inconsistent decisions by the commission.

"Part of the frustration of living in a historic district seems to be a lack of continuity between cases and a lack of immediate accessibility to the commission," Mr. Harman said.

Other Sylvan Lane residents agreed.

"I don't think it's right how they can tell you what to do," said Ruby Smith, who said she and her husband probably will sign the petition.

Sylvan Lane resident Philip Burns said he signed the petition after hearing neighbors' stories about their dealings with the commission. He said he was perturbed by the lack of written rules for what is permitted in the historic district.

"That makes it very difficult for a homeowner to know where he stands," Mr. Burns said. "Everything is ill-defined."

Jean O. Hannon, chairwoman of the Historic District Commission, said she would like to keep the historic district intact.

"We don't like to break it up and take little bits and pieces out of it," she said.

She said the commission tries to accommodate residents who are repairing buildings.

"We try to be as lenient as possible, but sometimes we hit a glitch," she said, referring to Mr. Harman's dispute with the commission.

Ms. Hannon doubted Mr. Harman will succeed in removing the street from the historic district.

"He's been talking about that for months," she said. "I really don't think much will come of it."

Although most Sylvan Lane residents seem ready to sign the petition, their neighbors on nearby Church Road have a different perspective.

"I like being in the historic district myself," said Shirley Peach, who signed a petition three years ago to expand the district to include Sylvan Lane and the portion of Church Road above the Patapsco Female Institute.

Sylvan Lane was included because it lies in the middle of the historic district, to the west of the Patapsco River, Ms. Hannon said.

Residents of the historic district said it protects them from architectural disasters.

"You just can't paint your house blue or green unless it's approved," Ms. Peach said.

"The intent of the commission is not to freeze in time, but only to ask for review of improvements to protect this special environment," said Church Road resident Evelyn Belschner.

Mr. Harman said many residents along Church Road and Sylvan Lane had no idea what living in a historic district would entail. Now, he said, he wants to return to the days before the historic district included Sylvan Lane.

"If the Department of Planning and Zoning is the least bit sympathetic to residents, they should allow us to go back to the way it was," he said.

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