Montgomery County Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) plans to introduce legislation that would make it easier for the owners of historic properties to make changes in the structures if health concerns are a factor.
The legislation would affect the work of the county's nine-member Historic Preservation Commission, whose approval is needed before exterior changes can be made to any of the 3,000 historic buildings in Montgomery.
Floreen was moved to action by a media report last month about two residents of the Takoma Park historic district, Kate A. Bauer and Eric N. Lindblom, who have been unable to win the commission's approval to replace many of the windows of their circa 1914 house. The windows generate dust rich in lead particles, and the couple's daughters, ages 4 and 6, have low but measurable lead levels in their blood.
The commission repeatedly has directed the couple to find a contractor able to remove lead paint from the windows, but it will consider their case again next Wednesday. In 1998, one contractor gave up on the job of removing lead from the windows, saying it would be better to replace them. One out-of-state window specialist referred by the commission used a local subcontractor who seemed unfamiliar with lead abatement techniques, Lindblom said.
"I'm all for historic preservation," Floreen said yesterday, "but we can't do it at the expense of children's safety." She said she will introduce her legislation after the council's summer recess ends in September. Applicants who have made a "reasonable effort to comply with the objectives" of the commission should be given "some relief when it comes to safety issues," she added.
Word of the council member's interest in the issue pleased the Takoma Park couple, who said they have wanted to address their lead problems since they moved into the district in 1998. "We were, of course, delighted," Lindblom said, when an aide to Floreen called to inquire about their situation.
Julia O'Malley, who heads the commission, said she had not heard about Floreen's legislation. "I think the commission is very concerned about any health issues that might come up," she added.
In advance of the hearing next Wednesday, Lindblom has been reviewing new research on the damaging effects of lead in young children. "The research findings were even worse than I thought," he wrote in an e-mail. "And I'm even more concerned and troubled that we did not push all of this sooner and more quickly and forcefully -- not just to protect our kids but to try to get a more rational policy into effect countywide."
County historic preservation coordinator Gwen Marcus Wright, who did not return messages yesterday, said in an earlier interview that "if there were a demonstrated adverse impact to the children, I think the commission in a heartbeat would say, 'Change your windows.' " Commission staff members have opposed allowing the couple to change all but four of their windows -- the four are part of a modern addition to the original house -- because of the precedent the case would set. Lead is common in construction materials used before the late 1970s.
Land-use lawyer Gus Bauman -- who is also Floreen's campaign chairman -- said the commission has operated in a vacuum of scrutiny. "The reality has been that since the commission was created [in 1979], they've never been watched over by the County Council, the county executive or the press," he said.