Charles County leaders moved to protect the past this week, endorsing the creation of a historic preservation panel and a tax incentive to encourage property owners to restore old homes and landmarks.

"This is an important time for the county. This is our heritage," said Commissioner Al Smith (R-Waldorf) before commissioners gave preliminary approval Monday to a draft ordinance and tax credit. "Shame on us if we let these places go by the wayside and lose our history."

The county has identified more than 800 potentially historic properties, from 19th-century tobacco barns to one-room schoolhouses. Only 15 are considered permanently protected from demolition or housing subdivisions.

"We have no way of protecting our one-of-a-kind properties," said Cathy Hardy, the county's historic preservation planner.

Some of the county's well-known landmarks, such as the Dr. Samuel A. Mudd House and St. Ignatius Church, are already listed under state preservation programs. But a local ordinance would make it easier to designate lesser-known homes, structures or districts, Hardy said.

Half of Maryland's counties have historic preservation ordinances. In Calvert County, which adopted one in the 1980s, there are 75 protected landmarks.

The proposed Charles County measure would create a five-person panel appointed by the commissioners. Members of the Historic Preservation Commission would be charged with recommending historic districts and properties, administering the tax credit and reviewing proposals to change the exteriors of properties that become part of the official list.

Restorations to historic homes can cost two to three times more than modern renovations, and it can be difficult to find craftsmen to do the work, said Kay H. Volman, chairman of the Charles County Historic Trust.

Volman lives in a Port Tobacco home from 1750 and is a strong proponent of the ordinance. But, she said, "there are many people that do not want to have any restrictions on their properties, and I understand that."

In 1992, a similar proposal by the county was scuttled because of concerns that "properties could be designated without the owner's consent and that routine maintenance such as painting would be subject to review by a commission," according to a report prepared by the county's historic preservation advisory council.

The new version seeks to balance preservation with the rights of property owners, Hardy said. For that reason, it is paired with a credit that would provide a 10 percent deduction from an applicant's property tax bill.

A resident with $100,000 in rehabilitation expenses, for instance, could knock $10,000 off the cost of the improvements. The plans would have to be approved in advance, and the applicant could carry over the credit for a total of four years if the rebate exceeded the property owner's tax bill in a single year.

In addition, the state provides a similar 20 percent income tax credit.

The planning department will hold a public information session on the proposed ordinance and tax credit at 7 p.m. Monday at the historic Port Tobacco Courthouse.

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