As the arbiter of taste in Howard County's historic places, the Historic District Commission has concerned itself mostly with buildings' outsides. Want to paint the facade of your antique shop foam green? You'll have to get the seven-member board's approval first.
Now the commission is considering extending its influence indoors. To the chagrin of some business owners in Ellicott City's historic district, the commission has discussed adding indoor signs that are meant to be seen through windows to the long list of features that it can regulate.
Commission members say it could provide another safeguard against tackiness in Ellicott City's historic district.
"You don't want a hodgepodge of all kinds of junk," said commission member Herbert Johl, who lives in Columbia.
But the proposal concerns business owners in Ellicott City's historic district, which is centered around Main Street. Bill Pastino, president of the Ellicott City Business Association, said having to put up new window signs -- should the commission deem the old ones unacceptable -- would be inconvenient and costly.
"I don't think they're thinking of the businessman," Pastino said. "You may have some people that agree with them in principle, but they don't want to take down their signs either."
Charlotte Willis, owner of Gateway Travel on Main Street, changes her window displays monthly. Would she have to get the commission's approval every time the signs changed?
"I couldn't possibly have someone regulating me, telling me what I can and cannot put in the window," Willis said. "I can see where restrictions can be good, because if some businesses would abuse the privilege and use degrading signs, that can be offensive to other businesses as well as clients walking up and down the street. But I would say the majority doesn't do that."
The commission has never addressed indoor building features because the county code restricts its powers to exteriors. Every month, business owners and residents in the historic district come before the commission to get approval for everything from paint colors to shutters and blinds to porches and decks.
But in other Maryland historic districts -- including Frederick and Laurel -- window signs do require approval from the local historic district commissions.
Annapolis is trying to clarify the section of its code that deals with interior signs, said Donna Hole, chief of historic preservation for the city.
In Howard County, the indoor sign issue grew out of a nearly yearlong process of revising the commission's design guidelines for the Ellicott City historic district, said Steve Bockmiller, a planner with the Department of Planning and Zoning and staff assistant to the commission.
"Window signs have been interpreted to be an interior, rather than an exterior feature of the building," according to a February memo about the proposal. "However, the [county] code does not explicitly address window signs. It would also be reasonable to view window signs, if they are designed and placed to be viewed from the outside, as exterior building features."
But an attorney told the commission that the code was ambiguous. He advised members to ask the County Council to draft a bill giving the commission explicit authority to regulate interior signs.
"At that point, the process stopped," Bockmiller said. The commission is scheduled to adopt its revised guidelines at its Thursday meeting, but the window sign issue will not be included. Members said they may bring up the issue at a future meeting.
Charles Hogg Jr., a commission member, said the panel is not out to hurt businesses in the historic district. Hogg said he has not formed an opinion on the matter and would like to get public input.
"I know it's a controversial issue but I don't know anybody on the commission that's vehement about it," said Hogg, a longtime Ellicott City resident. "We certainly don't want to keep businesses from making money. We're trying to keep it a nice, clean town with the whole idea of what Ellicott City has worked to [become] at this point."
Some business owners have criticized the commission overall, saying members' standards can be arbitrary and that the board has too much power.
One business owner said she did not want to say anything about the commission's latest proposal because she had to go before the board soon for an approval.
"I think they have their own agenda, and they don't live in this town," Pastino said, referring to several commission members who live outside Ellicott City. "Somewhere along the line, you're going to have a butting of heads with those guys."
At least one business owner thinks the commission may have a point about the interior signs.
Enalee Bounds, who has operated Ellicott's Country Store on Main Street for 36 years, said that though she doesn't like the idea of the commission coming indoors, it might be necessary.
"Some people have put very obtrusive signs through the years right inside, and neon lights and all kinds of things which basically don't belong in the historic district," Bounds said. "We've worked and we've come a long, long way. What's wrong with getting a decent sign?"
Pub Date: 5/03/98