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Seeking to protect Annapolis' heritage

THE BALTIMORE SUN

On a stroll through Annapolis' quaint downtown streets, Donna Hole, the city's preservation chief, points out how the historic district is eroding brick by brick.

She kneels on an East Street stoop to show where the home's 18th-century bricks are wearing away because the owner patched it with the wrong kind of mortar. Then she points out standard hardware-store porch balusters that are inappropriate for a Pinkney Street rowhouse.

At another East Street home, she stops to talk to a contractor who is refurbishing historic windows and notes she frequently gets word of someone ripping out historic windows and replacing them with modern ones.

These might seem like petty grievances, but Hole and other preservationists say the details make all the difference in maintaining the character of the state capital's 3-century-old downtown.

"What we are talking about is the historic fabric of Annapolis: the bricks, the mortar, the wood siding, the roofs, the windows, the doors," says David Blick, chairman of the Historic Preservation Commission, which reviews historic-district projects. "We are slowly erasing the 'historic,' and pretty soon we are not going to have what we are trying to preserve."

Some blame a lack of education about the rules. Others point out that unlike some other historic cities, Annapolis does not have a staff to roam the streets and cite those who violate its historic-district rules.

Whatever the cause, preservationists say it is time for the city to do more to protect the architecture that distinguishes it and has made Annapolis a popular tourist destination with a thriving downtown.

"We are not Any City, USA," says Mayor Ellen O. Moyer. "We are a very special place for a lot of different reasons, but principally for the look and feel of this city, which is rooted in its heritage."

Foundation created

The preservation movement in Annapolis began 50 years ago, when residents formed the Historic Annapolis Foundation to save historic downtown structures from the bulldozers of eager developers.

The group, led for many years by preservationist St. Claire Wright, began buying and renovating historic buildings and lobbying to preserve downtown - where the Treaty of Paris was signed, Gen. George Washington resigned his Army commission and Maryland's four signers of the Declaration of Independence had homes.

A year after the nonprofit got its start, the precursor to the Historic Preservation Commission was formed, the first such group in Maryland. It was not until a voter referendum in 1969, though, that the commission won its regulatory powers.

Today, Annapolis' historic district covers most of downtown and includes 1,100 structures. All exterior renovation or construction projects except paint require commission approval.

But as more people move into the historic district, preservationists say, seemingly innocent home improvement projects are threatening the integrity of the very structures saved from demolition. And, they say, the city doesn't have anyone making sure that homeowners comply with the rules.

Enforcement

On a typical day, Hole is not on the street surveying the historic district for violations - no one is. The only city employee trained in preservation, Hole manages the historic research program and acts as the administrator for the commission, talking to residents and granting administrative approval for minor projects.

When Hole was hired 10 years ago as the city's first full-time preservation staff member, she and the zoning enforcement officer enforced historic-district laws. But as the economy picked up, other zoning projects took precedence, leaving just Hole and her assistant to oversee preservation activities.

Other cities with historic districts do more to enforce rules.

Washington has two inspectors who drive around historic districts looking for violations and responding to complaints. In Alexandria, Va., three preservation staff members spend part of their time on enforcement, and the city's building inspectors are also trained in the historic-district laws.

But Annapolis' building inspectors are not trained in historic-district laws, and no one follows up on commission approvals to make sure that work is done right.

The result: a system of patchy enforcement in which complaints from neighbors and commission members are the only way violations come to Hole's attention, if they come at all.

"What we don't have is somebody going around and looking at all the minor detail things that are being done that nobody reports," says commission member Joan Kaplan. "If we are not enforcing those things, then time goes by and you can't go back and take care of it."

Hole would like to see a historic-district officer making regular patrols around the district, especially on weekends when much of the unapproved home improvement work is done. She and other preservationists complain about "weekend warriors," who, either in ignorance or disregard of the laws, replace their porch railings, fences, doors or stairs without seeking the commission's OK.

Pointing to the Pinkney Street porch balusters, she says they're an example of "Home Depot syndrome." It doesn't matter how nice the fix looks, she says. If it's not original material or a replacement in kind, it's not right for the historic district.

"By themselves they may not seem like a big deal," says Brian Alexander, president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Historic Annapolis Foundation. "But after several houses and several blocks it creeps up on you and reverses a lot of the work that has been done over the last half-century or so."

Education

Part of the problem, preservationists agree, is that residents aren't told about the rules when they buy a house and aren't educated about them later.

Five years ago, when commission Vice Chairman Bill Schmickle bought the Flag House Inn, a 19th-century bed- and-breakfast on Randall Street, he was amazed that he was never notified about the historic district and the rules that applied to his home.

"I could have purchased my house, and before moving in, could have decided to do something to it - change the windows, change the door, change the porch - and would have no understanding that I was supposed to get approvals for these sort of things," he says.

Blick and Hole have been surprised in recent months by the number of homeowners who have come before the commission pleading ignorance about historic-district regulations.

One of them was Sherry Pfeifer, who replaced the front door on her King George Street townhouse with one that had an oval stained-glass window. She and her husband, Michael, spent hours refinishing it after they bought it at an antique auction and put it up without the commission's OK. After being reported by neighbors, Pfeifer was told in February by the commission that the door had to come down because it was not in keeping with the historic look of that style of home.

Pfeifer says she did not know that she had to go to the commission to replace her door. A former Columbia resident, she marvels that she had signed disclosure forms about community covenants there but received nothing when she moved into Annapolis' historic district.

"It should be their responsibility to let you know, not your responsibility to find out," she says.

In Alexandria, historic-district residents are reminded by letter each spring that their homes are subject to regulations. The preservation staff there also meets with real estate agents to remind them to inform buyers about the rules.

In Baltimore, each historic district has an architectural review committee that is supposed to inform new residents about the rules; its Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation mails guidelines to residents every few years.

Preservationists say a similar program should be put in place in Annapolis.

"We need to find a way to proactively reach property owners with information and education so errors aren't made," Schmickle says. "People are failing to come to us when they want to make changes, and they make changes that are going to cost in the long run."

That's something Ronald B. Hollander, a city landlord and major property owner, is fighting. One of the commission's most outspoken critics, he is suing the panel over three gooseneck lamps he installed without approval over a signboard at a building that he owns on Main Street.

He spent more than $600,000 and two years remodeling the building, which once housed a Crown bookstore, but an electrician determined that the existing lamps were unsafe. Without getting approval, he substituted new gooseneck lights similar to ones on buildings nearby. But the commission has ordered them removed, saying it stopped approving those kinds of lamps nine years ago.

"It is such a minor thing, I don't understand it," says Hollander, who sued the commission in 1998 after it ordered him to preserve the facade of a Main Street building that had burned down. The facade eventually fell down.

"I think they do a good job on the overall picture, but when they try to nit-pick something for no good reason, I think it is wrong," Hollander says. "They are inconsistent in their decisions, and most developers, builders and homeowners are afraid of them because they wield so much power."

In Annapolis, battles with the commission have become the stuff of legend. Hollander's 1998 case is one of those; so is the fight in the mid-1980s over a downtown resident's rose trellis that was made of forbidden plastic instead of wood.

Hole and commission members declined to comment on Hollander's gooseneck-light case because it is pending in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, but acknowledge preservation in the city needs good public relations.

Preservation talks

At two preservation summits sponsored by Mayor Moyer this year, participants suggested that the city create a resource center to centralize information about the historic preservation process and architectural resources for property owners.

Hole says the city is exploring a possible partnership with the Historic Annapolis Foundation and could soon begin applying for grants for the project. She is also looking into how the city could begin a disclosure program for new residents.

Moyer and others say an improved education program will solve many of the problems and complaints of property owners, especially if it shows that details are important and that preservation has benefits, such as increased home values. The city is also looking into the possibility of doing more historic district enforcement as it reorganizes its inspections and permits bureau.

"If you want to protect historic preservation," says Moyer, "we have to work on changing the attitude so that most people - and I think most people do - appreciate it as an asset."

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