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Westminster to push alternatives to razing historic properties


Although unable to stop the wrecking ball from destroying a century-old house last week, Westminster officials are considering a plan that would compel anyone who wants to raze a historic property to hear options before a single brick falls.

"Ultimately this process will provide a means to ensure that somebody has to hear all the different perspectives from somebody on a building and hopefully decide not to demolish, having heard those options," said Thomas B. Beyard, the city's director of planning and public works.

To tear down a property, the owner must file a demolition permit with Carroll County. The permit must be signed by the city clerk and Beyard. The bill to be introduced at the council meeting Monday would add three steps before the permit is approved for buildings within Westminster's historic district, as entered in the national Register of Historic Places. Options the city might include are tax credits, restoration grants and business plans.

Town planner Shawn Siders estimates that up to 25 percent of the city's buildings are in the historic district.

When a request for a permit is filed, the mayor and council and the city's Historic District Commission would receive a notice. The first person who would have to approve the permit after the county and city clerk is Siders, who would work with the commission to find tax credits and restoration money that would apply to the property.

Then, the city's economic development specialist, Stanley T. Ruchlewicz, would talk about possible buyers, commercial uses and state funding. Finally, the city's rehabilitation coordinator, Ray Fleming, would address lead paint issues and money that might be used to rehabilitate the house.

The city, which prides itself on its small-town appeal, was prompted to act because of the public uproar to the demolition of 109 E. Main St., an 1887 Victorian house that fell to bulldozers last week.

"It's terrifically disappointing to watch historic fabric rip because of something other than natural disasters," said Kristen Stevens, a Westminster resident and volunteer member of the Historic District Commission who commutes to Washington daily in her job as an archaeologist for the nation's battlefields at the National Parks Service. Although she appreciates the proposed legislation, she feels the city should do more.

"It's a very positive move in light of this recent crisis, but we should be looking at ways to best intervene and be the best stewards to maintain this city's historic feel," she said.

Longtime Westminster resident Laurie Walters, also a member of the historic commission, felt alternatives to the demolition of the Main Street house were available.

"Given the opportunity to present the facts, the decision to save it would have been obvious," she said. She said the house could have been rehabilitated into a bed-and-breakfast inn, or into a combination of office space and upscale rentals. Or, she said, government grants and tax credits might have helped persuade the owners to save the house, including the city's Facade Improvement Program. In July, the city received a $100,000 state grant that provides qualified businesses a dollar-for-dollar match up to $20,000 to improve their facades.

The house, the original residence of Dr. Charles Billingslea, whose family was one of two to live there for more than a century, is owned by Westminster Union Bank. The bank owns three other buildings nearby on Main Street. One is a restored 19th-century building.

"I'm very much in support of the HDC's mission. In fact, I chaired the campaign to restore Carroll Theatre, but sometimes it just doesn't work," said bank President Mark G. Pohlhaus. "Even if they'd come to me a year ago, it wouldn't have made a difference. I was already aware of the credits and grants, and for this particular building it would not work."

He said that the bank has owned the building since the mid-1990s, but until two years ago it was a five-unit apartment building that, he said, was in disrepair. He described it as a fire hazard that also had vagrants living in it after it had been vacated. For two years, the bank looked at all options to demolition.

"There were major obstacles in terms of renovations and bringing it up to code and it wasn't economically feasible," he said. He said the bank tried to sell the house. The city also tried to suggest alternatives, such as converting it to a restaurant or renovating it for offices, but bank officials thought the ideas were impractical.

But he thinks that the city's legislation might go a long way to save houses.

"Other property owners would benefit greatly by knowing well in advance of what options are out there by way of federal tax credits and grants," he said.

Pohlhaus said the bank has no immediate plans for the space - now an empty lot - though it would expand its offices if necessary.

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