Panel to recommend three-tiered system to protect historic buildings in county; Ratings meant to counter lax preservation laws


After more than a year of meetings and discussion, a Baltimore County committee is about to recommend changes in the county law protecting historic properties -- a law that preservationists have criticized as too lax and property owners have said is too cumbersome.

The group, appointed by County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, will propose a system in which any property with historic, cultural or architectural significance would be placed in one of three categories with varying levels of protection.

"Will it be better than it is now? If it is held to the letter, yes," said Judith Kremen, director of the Baltimore County Historical Trust. "The committee spent a lot of time trying to figure out what is possible and pragmatic."

Today, the committee is expected to present a preliminary list of 20 properties members think should be studied to determine if they should be preserved, said David S. Thaler, an engineer heading the group that includes builders and historians.

A consultant has been hired on a one-year, $100,000 contract. Thaler said he hopes the consultant can review between 500 and 1,000 sites or structures, provided the contract is renewed.

"Everybody has been pretty well together from the beginning," Thaler said. "The problem has been that it has been such a complex area. It has taken so long to come up with a draft paper."

Under the recommended three-tiered system, Class One properties would be those of indisputable value, such as the Hampton Mansion in Towson, Thaler said. Those properties could not be destroyed or significantly altered without approval of the county's Landmarks Preservation committee.

Class Three properties would be those without significant historic value. Owners could raze or alter them, provided they first took pictures and documented what was there.

Class Two properties would fall in between -- they would be significant, but not so important as Class One sites. The Landmarks Preservation Commission also would review changes to those properties.

The commission would decide which properties belong in Classes Two and Three. The commission would recommend Class One properties to the county executive for approval by the County Council.

Property owners could appeal the commission's decisions to the county's Board of Appeals.

Ruppersberger appointed the committee in spring 1998 in response to several highly publicized cases in which old buildings, such as the Samuel Owings House and the Maryvale Tenant House, were destroyed to make room for development.

While county code prohibits the destruction of any structure on the Maryland Historical Trust inventory, the law was not stringently enforced until recently.

To avoid further losses of historic sites, the county started requiring owners of properties on the Maryland Historical Trust list to post notices if they plan to substantially alter their buildings or tear them down. A hearing is held if anyone wishes to contest the work.

But builders and homeowners have said the new process is inconvenient, and Maryland Historical Trust officials complained their list was being misused.

Nearly 3,000 Baltimore County properties are on the list, a compilation of properties more than 50 years old, but not all are truly historic, and some no longer exist, Thaler said.

EHT Traceries Inc., the consultant recently hired by the county, will research sites on the list to determine if they are worth saving. The consultant also is expected to review properties not on the inventory list that residents think should be preserved.

A group of Catonsville residents has prepared a list of 97 sites, some of which are in immediate danger of development, said David Wasmund, who helped write the list.

Sites include: the remains of a log cabin where Catonsville founder Richard Caton lived; Catonsville Elementary School; remains of Sulphur Spring Hotel; the community post office; the area's trolley trails; and many old homes.

"A lot of houses are being razed," Wasmund said. "This was our way to make sure what was important gets looked at."

Pub Date: 9/15/99

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