The Howard County Historic District Commission has rejected a proposed apartment building for low-income senior citizens, saying the structure would be too obtrusive for old town Ellicott City.
The 12-unit, three-story building, planned by the Howard County Housing Commission, would have been at the back of the public parking lot on the corner of Main Street and Ellicott Mills Terrace. The site is across the lot from the Merryman Street Log Cabin and the old stone courthouse (now a visitors' center), and down the hill from the 150-year-old Heine house--which critics said would have been blocked.
"It was just too big of a building," said Barry Gibson, who runs a dental laboratory on Main Street and is on the board of the Ellicott City Business Association.
The building would have housed county residents 62 and older who have incomes of from $8,000 to $20,000 a year. The county aims to spread its senior housing evenly throughout Howard.
Howard's senior population is projected to double in two decades, as Columbia's original residents age and as more people bring their elderly parents to live nearby. At the same time, affordable land in the county is scarce.
That combination made the vote a particular disappointment to Leonard Vaughan, director of the Housing Commission. "For many of the seniors who have expressed interest in housing, that would have been an ideal location for them," he said. "They wanted to be a part of the life of Ellicott City."
But the life of downtown Ellicott City is the life of an official historic district. Because of that designation by the federal and county governments, the commission has the power to block any construction.
Stephen Bockmiller, administrative assistant to the Historic District Commission, which is a unit of the Department of Planning and Zoning, said that of the half-dozen applications over the last five years, two have been denied.
This time, he said, the county requested several changes from the architects. In the final design, backed by planning and zoning staff, the apartment building blended several elements found in Ellicott City architecture: a stone veneer first floor, German lap wood siding on the second and third floors, front and back porches, and black asphalt shingles.
"They refined the application to where it would fit in the best it could with the architecture of the district," Bockmiller said.
But not enough for some critics. In a historic district, said Main Street resident and businessman Richard Taylor, "new construction should not stick out. It should conform. This one did anything but conform."
Taylor sits on the Historic District Commission but recused himself from the vote and testified at the hearing as a resident.
"It would have been highly, highly visible," Taylor said. "It would have distorted the value of those historical assets."
Vaughan of the Housing Commission disagrees. "In my opinion," he said, "it probably would have gotten lost on that site and you wouldn't have noticed it."
The Housing Commission will meet Tuesday at 7 p.m. in the Gateway Building to discuss what to do next. Among the options, Vaughan said, are to reapply for the same site in a year, plan a building for a site the county owns on Main Street, or try to work out an agreement with the owner of the adjacent property.