More than a year ago, Roger Marino watched as flames engulfed three buildings he owned and three owned by his neighbors in the center of historic Ellicott City, Md. Today, Marino, who now has his own public relations business, expects that new buildings will rise from the rubble -- but he will not be responsible for building them.

"It would have been too much, too expensive for us to rebuild," Marino said about the buildings that for 15 years had housed an art gallery, apartments and an art supply shop. "I sold the property to one of my tenants, and the new owners are in the process of rebuilding those as well as another."

The fire, which caused destruction that business owners described as worse than that wrought by tropical storm Agnes in 1972, reduced six two-story row houses in the center of the 19th century shopping district to smoldering red bricks and twisted metal. A bakery, restaurant, wine store, art gallery, gift shop, antique clock store and seven apartments were consumed in the flames.

Witnesses told investigators from the state fire marshal's office and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that flames appeared first from Leidig's Bakery, which would have celebrated its 40th year of operation. Investigators later ruled that the fire began there as the result of a faulty air-conditioning unit.

Efforts to rebuild the area continue, some area merchants said, but they have been hampered by disagreements over the Howard County building code. "Because the buildings are completely gone, we have to follow the new county codes. There are a lot more restrictions and a lot more rules to comply with," Marino said.

That has not deterred store owners who were able to set up shop elsewhere -- and make money while waiting to return to Ellicott City.

"We're going to have a bakery in Ellicott City again," said John Fisher, owner of Leidig's, which lost $500,000 worth of bakery equipment in the blaze and has since relocated in the Longreach Village Center in Columbia.

"We were planning on getting into Columbia by June 1986. This just pushed us ahead of schedule," he said