Saving Md.'s 'Sites and Sights'

New housing is inevitable, but preservationists are stressing the importance of saving old houses and historic farms -- and their surrounding landscapes.
New housing is inevitable, but preservationists are stressing the importance of saving old houses and historic farms -- and their surrounding landscapes. (Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By Mary Otto and Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 20, 2006

Maryland's oldest places have survived fires, floods and the ravages of time. With the U.S. Census predicting 1.2 million new residents in the state in 20 years, preservationists say they need to mobilize.

Without special protections, advocates say, the farmlands of Frederick and Howard counties, the old C & O Canal that flows through booming Montgomery County and the weathered tobacco barns that dot Southern Maryland might not survive progress, or as painter Vicki Michael said, "what people think is progress."

She and her husband, Peter, are the seventh generation of the Michael family to look over the rolling pasture of their homestead, Cooling Springs Farm, along a scenic stretch of farms just north of the Potomac River, between Point of Rocks and Doubs in Frederick County. Development pressure is immense in rural areas on the outskirts of metropolitan Washington.

Power lines on tall towers stretch across some adjacent fields. Authorities have approved construction of a power plant nearby. Residential and commercial development is on the march in the area and throughout the county.

"We're getting it from all sides," said Joanne Ivancic of the Frederick County Landmarks Foundation.

Finding suitable places to accommodate new housing, schools, utilities and roads is an increasing challenge, officials throughout the state say. In the process, Ivancic and other preservationists stress, it is important to save old houses and historic farms, and the landscapes that surround them -- "the sites and the sights," Ivancic said.

The movement is growing. To preserve Maryland's vistas from the encroachment of billboards, power lines, cellphone towers and subdivisions, Scenic Maryland -- an affiliate of the national anti-blight group Scenic America -- is joining in.

A list released today highlighting Maryland's Last Chance Scenic Places for 2006 features the Michaels' and other neighboring farms, which, according to Michael family lore, were located along a route of the Underground Railroad.

Also included on the group's list is the historic C & O Canal and Potomac River corridor. Although the corridor has local, state and federal protections, its beauty is endangered, especially in the metropolitan area, according to the Scenic Maryland list.

"Skyrocketing property values, frequent turnover in land ownership and efforts to maximize values by cutting down forests and constructing oversize luxury homes are . . . threatening 'death by a thousand cuts,' " according to the report.

In Southern Maryland, development pressures threaten the tobacco barns that bear witness to Maryland's agricultural history, winning structures in St. Mary's County a place on the list. (Preservation efforts have already won the state's tobacco barns local, state and national attention. The barns of Southern Maryland were cited as endangered in 2004 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.)

Residents of five counties -- Anne Arundel, Calvert, Charles, Prince George's and St. Mary's -- are eligible for grant money to help the effort to save some of the estimated 3,000 to 4,000 remaining barns, many of which have fallen into neglect. Despite pressure from developers, Prince George's officials recently passed an ordinance to protect the barns and other historical relics in the county.

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