The Historic District Commission rejected late last night plans for an office complex in the heart of Ellicott City that residents said would harm the character of the scenic area.
The panel voted 4-1 against the project, with Joseph F. Tieperman Jr. the only member to vote for it. Two members of the seven-member board were absent.
The complex would have had 10 office units in four buildings designed to look like 19th-century homes, on a site off Fels Lane. Developer Michael L. Pfau, also planned 68 parking spaces.
The site is in Ellicott City's historic district, which has regulations that developers must follow in addition to county zoning laws. The Historic District Commission's charge is to ensure that projects are compatible with the area and to protect the district's "historic resources."
Nearby residents said the office complex would obscure a 19th-century house also on Fels Lane and overwhelm the property.
The project's architect said the proposed office buildings would be about 34 feet tall, compared with the 33-foot-tall home, known as the Heine House. But one of the office buildings would rise about 16 feet above the house because it would be built on higher ground.
Tieperman, who has worked in the development business, said the project would improve Ellicott City.
"To sacrifice the economic value of the proposal for all of Howard County would be a tragedy. I think the developer has done everything he can."
Member Richard Taylor said the buildings were simply too large. Other commission members agreed, although they praised the architecture.
"We haven't approved anything of this size. This is precedent setting," Taylor said.
Pfau said he will try again. "The size certainly could be remedied," he said.
Charles E. Fisher, a historic preservationist with the National Park Service who lives in historic Ellicott City, testified last month that the Fels Lane house could lose its eligibility for federal tax credits -- used for renovating historic buildings -- if the project goes forward.
He said the house qualified for tax credits 10 years ago.
"This is just too much new construction," Fisher said. "This is really destroying the significant qualities of this setting."
Ellicott City activist Sally Bright testified that the commission earlier turned down two other proposals for Fels Lane -- one on the same site and another nearby -- that were similar in size and scope to Pfau's plans.
"He wants to maximize [use of the land], but that doesn't work in the historic area," she said before the meeting last night.
Anne Adams, an architectural historian from Washington, said last night that the project would not "impair " the site.
"Ellicott City is not a museum to be frozen in one place in time," she said. Adams, who was hired by Pfau to review the plans, said they would benefit the area.
This is Pfau's third proposal for the Fels Lane site. Residents have opposed each proposal, saying all were too large.
In 1998, the commission rejected Pfau's plans to build 27 townhouses on the property. More recently, Pfau submitted plans to build an office complex designed to look like a farmstead. Those received support from the commissions staff, but he withdrew them last month after neighbors objected.
The commission staff recommended approval of Pfau's latest plans, calling the complex "very well-designed."
Bright said the community was relieved that the commission rejected Pfau's plan. "We're defending the district but we're not against progress," she said. "We just want it to be appropriate."