Standing Their Ground

Montgomery Proposal Divides Preservationists, Land Owners

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 5, 2009

A crumbling complex of farm buildings on Hawkins Creamery Road has come to embody an emerging debate in Montgomery County: Who should decide what is historic?

The debate is pitting preservationists, who want to protect the county's landmarks, against people such as Sherwood Duvall, who thinks he should have the final word on whether to tear down a deteriorating homestead on the Damascus farm, where he worked for almost 60 years. But fellow farmer Perry Kapsch of nearby Poolesville sides with preservationists, saying it is her responsibility to act as a steward of Montgomery's historic landscape to show future generations how "people used to live."

As Maryland's largest jurisdiction steadily developed over the past three decades, the county's historic preservation program protected more than 400 sites and 21 neighborhoods, including the Silver Theatre, Glen Echo Park and the National Park Seminary in Silver Spring. Now, the County Council is considering legislation that would make it more difficult to designate a site as historic when the property owner objects.

The proposal, scheduled for council discussion Monday, is meant to give owners more say in what sponsor Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty) describes as a muddled, costly and emotional process.

"You can't just dump this on people," Knapp said. "We've had property owners walking out in tears because they felt like they just got railroaded."

A well-organized network of local, state and national preservationists has mobilized against the legislation, telling the council in e-mails, petitions and testimony that it would eviscerate preservation efforts by tying the county's hands to protect a site when the owner says no thanks. Opponents, including County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), Montgomery's chief planner and a long list of community organizations from Takoma Park to Germantown, also question the legality of the proposal, which would create a higher standard for review when an owner protests.

Eileen McGuckian of Montgomery Preservation Inc. said such changes would essentially create an owner veto, jeopardizing sites not yet protected.

"It is such a heightened standard that it becomes virtually impossible," said McGuckian, who was the first chairwoman of the county's Historic Preservation Commission.

Current property owners can seek historic designation, or sites can be nominated by county planners or neighbors. Properties are reviewed by the Historic Preservation Commission and the Planning Board, which make recommendations to the County Council. Owners of historic properties are required to obtain permission from the commission to make additions or alterations, such as enclosing porches or cutting down major trees. Owners of such properties are also eligible for state and local tax credits.

Knapp's proposal would change the review process when an owner objects. The site would have to meet at least three criteria for historic designation instead of one, and designation would require the votes of four of five members of the Planning Board instead of three. The measure would delete "high artistic value" as a category for protecting a property, a criterion Knapp considers "highly subjective."

Julia H. Miller, special counsel to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said that regulations in other communities consider an owner's perspective but that Montgomery's proposal is unusual in its creation of a separate, more stringent review. In general, she said, property owners "tend to object to designation because they would prefer not to be regulated."

For five years, the Duvalls have fought efforts to include their farm in the county's preservation program. To county planners, the collection of farm buildings is "an outstanding early farmstead" that is significant historically and architecturally. To Duvall, who is 90, the farm "is no rarity." He said: "There's nothing historical about it. It is just old."

Duvall began running the farm in 1933, when he was 14 and lost his father. He now rents the land to local farmers. But most of the structures, which have sat unused for more than 15 years, are like skeletons. Tree roots and termites have invaded the farmhouse foundation, and wood slats are peeling off the sagging corncrib. Duvall wants to tear down the two-story white farmhouse to build a home for his grandson. Instead, as part of a process, he is required to keep the unstable buildings standing, which comes with a cost: $3,000 one year to paint the roof; $1,500 another year to shore up the porch. The stress, Duvall said, has led to sleepless nights and exacerbated his high blood pressure.

Last year, the family won a minor victory when the council initially voted not to include the farm on the list of protected properties. But the council left the property -- and the family -- in limbo by deciding to retain the farm on a separate index that targets potentially significant sites. If Duvall wanted to demolish or substantially change the buildings, he would have to start the review process over.

Twenty miles to the west, another longtime farming family offers a different view. Kapsch lives in a historic home from the 1700s and fears that Knapp's proposal would lead to the loss of hundreds of historic sites because of a decision by one owner at one point in time.

Kapsch, a former county planner for historic preservation who raises alpacas, said local and state laws provide flexibility to modernize historic buildings, not treat them like museums. The original master bedroom in her house is now the kitchen, and state tax credits can help cover the cost of installing air-conditioning and heating.

Like most farmers, Kapsch said her family does not like to be told what it can or cannot do with its land. But, she said, three-dimensional history is irreplaceable. "You don't have the smell, you don't have the texture," she said. "That will absolutely be lost."

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