In a debate that could determine how historic buildings are redeveloped across Baltimore County, Oella residents argued yesterday the merits of two bills that would allow a 19th-century mill to be converted into luxury apartments.
More than a dozen residents appeared at a County Council work session to speak in favor of the bills, which would exempt historic buildings from some open space and parking requirements. Without the bills and the redevelopment of Oella Mill, they said, the historic centerpiece of their community would eventually crumble.
"To survive, it must be adapted," said Douglas Hough, who has lived in Oella two years.
A smaller group protested the bills, which are sponsored by Council Chairman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley, saying that the mill project would clog the narrow, twisting roads in their community across the Patapsco River from Ellicott City.
Opponents said they don't object to redeveloping the mill, but believe the plan under consideration would add too many homes. "These bills will directly affect our safety," said Henry Berger, another Oella resident.
The $26 million renovation project, proposed by Forest City Residential Group of Cleveland, would create 175 apartments, which the company has said would rent for as much as $3,000 a month.
Moxley has called the proposal the best alternative for the site, which also could be turned into a restaurant or banquet hall. Those uses would put far more cars on the road, he said.
Daniel Stone, a representative of the company that owns the mill, said the building's current use as an antiques market doesn't generate enough rent to pay for proper maintenance.
"Now is the time for this project to be redeveloped," Stone said. "This building needs a great deal of attention."
County law requires that developers provide a certain amount of parking and recreation space when they build residences; in some circumstances, a buffer between types of development also is required.
Forest City received variances from those requirements from the county zoning commissioner, but opponents in the community took the company to court and won.
However, Moxley said he believes that Circuit Judge Patrick Cavanaugh was misreading county law. While both sides are preparing for an appeal, the councilman has pursued legislation that would specifically exempt the project from those requirements.
Because preservation laws severely limit what can be done to historic buildings, it is often impossible to provide the open space, parking and other amenities the law requires when adapting them, Moxley said.
Julia Graham, a 14-year resident of Oella, agrees.
"There are many older buildings in Baltimore County," she said. "And if redevelopment is our priority, putting barriers to the residential redevelopment of older commercial buildings is not the way to do it."