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Officials weigh changes in landmark protections

The Baltimore Sun

Structures included on a state list of historic places, but not deemed historic by the county, could lose some protections in three years, under a measure discussed at yesterday's Baltimore County Council work session.

Proponents of the measure say that the current system creates bureaucratic headaches for owners whose property has been included on the state list incorrectly or without the owner's knowledge. But opponents say that it will make historical properties vulnerable to destruction.

A bill to reform the way the county handles requests to alter historic properties was introduced in March, but yesterday county officials unveiled an amendment that would eliminate the state designation as a factor when considering changes to structures. And the measure would set a three-year deadline for the county to review about 3,000 structures currently on the state's list for inclusion on the county's list.

"We think that it's a fair amendment," said Michael E. Field, the county attorney. "It will bring us in line with the other 21 jurisdictions in Maryland."

Yet opponents say that the amendment could endanger historical sites that stand in a developer's path.

"What this bill does is make it easier to demolish the historical fabric of Baltimore County," said Ruth Mascari, a board member of the Baltimore County Historical Trust and former chairwoman of the Landmarks Preservation Committee, the panel that oversees the county's historic structure list.

Patricia Bentz, executive director of the county historical trust and a member of the task force which drew up the original bill, said she was surprised to learn of the amendment yesterday.

"The county trust doesn't support that amendment at all," she said. "There are many, many properties that are on this list that are going to be lost."

However, some residents said they see benefits to the measure.

Gina Hrybyk and Beverly Stevens, who both own homes in Relay, one of the county's designated historic districts, say that the bill could bring relief to members of their community.

"As a property owner, it kind of rubs you the wrong way to have a committee approve what you do to your house," Hyrbyk said.

The bill would establish a process for landowners who apply to demolish structures that appear on a list kept by the Maryland Historical Trust.

The list is meant to serve as a guide for local governments as they consider whether to designate properties historic landmarks.

"It's meant for study," Field said. "It's meant for consideration for the future."

Anyone, not just the owner, can nominate a structure to the list. Properties on the list do not undergo a rigorous examination, and the list is not intended to have any regulatory impact, county officials said.

But under county practices, a landowner who applies for a permit to demolish a structure on the list must receive approval from the zoning commissioner at a public hearing.

Many people only discover that a structure they own is listed on the state historical list when they attempt to get a demolition permit, Field said.

Under the measure, which was proposed by the county administration, the zoning commissioner would no longer have a say in demolition requests for structures on the list, Instead, the application for demolition would go before the county Landmarks Preservation Commission, which would decide whether the structure meets the county's criteria for historic landmarks.

If the commission ruled that the building was a historic landmark and the County Council agreed, the structure would be protected from demolition.

If the commission denied landmark status, the landowner would be allowed to apply for the demolition permit.

If the amended bill is approved, the county will follow the existing rules until April 29, 2010. After that, structures only will be protected if they have been nominated for the final or preliminary county landmarks list or are located in a proposed or designated county historic district.

The council is scheduled to vote on the bill Monday.

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