Protection sought for historic sites


Local historians and officials want to broaden the reach of rules aimed at protecting historic sites in Howard County and offer a tax incentive for restoration efforts.

The County Council is developing legislation to provide a property tax break for people who maintain or preserve old buildings, proposals that may be introduced in September, County Executive Charles I. Ecker said this week.

But the Howard County Historic District Commission board plans to send a letter to Mr. Ecker and the council next week requesting protection for historic buildings not in the county's historic districts.

Under county zoning regulations, if a structure is not in the two historic districts -- Lawyers Hill and Ellicott City -- it is not protected from development and an owner is not required to preserve it.

Historians said that with about 630 historic sites in the county, about 100 of the sites could be destroyed if they are not given protection.

"It's important to preserve our history so others can look back and learn, even though some people don't think it's worth it," said Sam Merson, a member of the historic commission's board. "In Howard County, land's worth a lot of money and a lot of times people look at the dollar shaking in front of them and not at the site that's being destroyed."

In 1989, then-County Executive Elizabeth Bobo tried to impose rules for specific historic sites.

However, Ms. Bobo withdrew her proposal after it was criticized by some owners of historic buildings, officials said.

The Braebrooke Home Owners Association Inc. of Ellicott City already has sent a letter to the County Council seeking more protection for historic sites.

The association wants the council to place a moratorium on destruction of historic homes.

It also is asking the county to establish a task force to develop protection guidelines similar to those in Montgomery County, which offers historic home owners a 10 percent property tax credit if they restore their properties.

The demolition last February of Ellicott City's Woodlawn Mansion, more recently known as the Papillon Restaurant, sparked concerns about historic preservation.

The mansion, the 19th-century home of a former Maryland judge and a former state attorney general, was destroyed despite its placement on the county's 1980s survey of historic sites.

Residents of the Braebrooke community, near the mansion, said they found out too late about the lack of protection.

"We drove by one day and saw a wrecking ball going into it," said Scott Billigmeier, secretary of the homeowners association. "We had thought that since it was on the county's historic inventory list, the house was protected. That wasn't the case at all."

Under existing regulations, no exterior changes can be made to homes in local historic districts unless the commission approves.

If a structure is not in a historic district, there are no regulations.

If a developer needs more space or an owner doesn't have the money for preservation -- one of the main problems -- "down goes the historic building," said Herb Johl, chairman of the historic commission's board.

Within the past five years, several historic homes -- in addition to the Woodlawn Mansion -- have been lost because they were not protected.

For example, townhouses stand near Tamar Road and Route 175 in Columbia, where the 17th-century Linwood House once stood.

Another 17th-century stone house near St. John's Plaza also has been knocked down, said local historian Joetta Cramm.

The Oaks, a 17th-century house off U.S. 40 near the Normandy Woods Apartments, may be torn down when a road to more planned houses is put in, Ms. Cramm said.

"It's a crime, and it's a shame to see historic homes destroyed," she said. "Once the houses are torn down, they're gone.

"I'm not saying to preserve every house that's 50 years old, but there's got to be some kind of regulation that's fair to property owners and developers as well."

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