Elkton discusses narrowing historic district
Mayor aims to decrease burden on property owners
— The town board recently discussed the possibility of making the town’s historic district smaller so that properties that lie in that district, but have no historical significance, can be more easily developed.
Currently, the town’s his-
toric district includes downtown locations, Holly Hall, Elk Landing and Elkton Middle School, said Jeanne Minner, town director of planning.
But Mayor Rob Alt said he believes the current historic district overlay zone is “almost too broad” and he’d like to see if it’s possible to make it more specific. On Friday, Alt said making the area smaller would allow properties with historical value, such as buildings built in the 1800s or before and even some built in the early 1900s, to be pre- served, while allowing other buildings with no historical significance to be more easily improved without going throughough a lengthy permitting process.
During Wednesday’s workshop meeting, Alt said he’d like to know if it’s possible to just designate specific buildings, instead of whole areas, as historic.
The purpose of a historic district is to preserve sites and structures of historical importance, such as areas of
buildings in historical sites and buildings with certain exterior architectural features, among other factors, Minner said. To make exterior changes to a building or structure that falls in the historic district, a property owner must apply for a work permit from the town’s Historic District Commission, which considers such proposals in order to ensure buildings in the zone adhere to historic design standards.
Alt noted that all property owners who want to make exterior changes to their homes or buildings must go through these extra steps if they fall within the district. For example, someone who rented a building that lies within the historic district overlay zone and wanted put up signage promoting their business would have to get approval from the Historic District Commission along with other permitting agencies, he said.
Commissioner Jean Broomell noted that a refinement of the historical district could save some property owners on the cost of permitting, as it costs $50 to have the Historic District Commission hear a case due to the legal obligation to advertise a meeting.
Meanwhile, Commissioner Mary Jo Jablonski asked whether it would be possible to identify the truly historic properties within the district,
noting that there are properties on Main Street that were totally redone in the 1960s or 1970s and may no longer have historic value but still fall within the historic district.
“I don’t want to destroy any of the historic properties,” she said, noting her reservations.
The Historic District Commission would support the mayor and commissioner’s decision to reach out to a consultant to look at the historic district, said Paula Newton, chairperson of the district and president of the Cecil County Historical Society, on Monday.
“Everybody involved with this issue and with the town will work as a team to come up with what we think is the best for the town,” she said. “There’s no sense in having guidelines or ordinances if they’re not enforceable or unreasonable. It’s got to be a fair fit for all the property owners in town.”
Newton added that the historic district is an important part of the county seat.
“It’s important for the town to have a historic district because along with that comes grant money and the designation has a significance as far as tourism, and those are all important things,” she said, adding that she agrees the zone does create more hurdles for those looking to make changes. “But we’ve already lost a lot of our historic structures due to progress.”
She noted that the original Columbia Bank on North Street was torn down to make a parking lot, while a new Columbia Bank was
built as a replacement.
Newton argued that before making any changes to the historic district, the mayor and commissioners should agree on their goals for the town.
“There’s certain structures that are outside of the obvious historic district, which is downtown, that I think need to be preserved, but there’s a lot of things in between that really don’t hold a lot of historic significance,” she added.
Newton explained that the Historic District Commission will soon use an updated set of guidelines drafted for the town by Commonwealth Heritage Group, a consulting firm, to determine whether a structure conforms to historic design standards, including windows, siding and roofing, among others.
“The guidelines are written based on the Secretary of the Interior Standards,” she said. “That’s what every historic district goes by, that’s your start, but then most towns do have something that’s specific to their town and that’s what this is.”
On Monday, Minner said the town has not received the final draft of the design guidelines, but both the Historic District Commission and the mayor and commissioners will review them before their approval.
As for looking at individual properties in the historic district, Newton said she unsure of the criteria for deciding what is “historic.”
“That would be something for the Maryland Historic Trust and probably the town
lawyer to decide, because how can you tell one person from this house, ‘You’re now going to have to adhere to the historic guidelines,’ but the house next door doesn’t,” Newton said.
On Tuesday, Minner said there is a portion within the ordinance that allows people to petition whether they want to be included in the district.
In 2004, the Maryland Historic Trust performed a survey on behalf of the State Highway Administration. In 2010, an updated map was put in the 2010 Comprehensive
Plan for Elkton, which showed a smaller area.
But Minner said there are issues with the 2004 survey because there are several properties that are not designated as contributing or not contributing, meaning it’s unclear whether they have historic value. Minner said there should also be a more detailed and up-to-date map of the district.
She said if the map were to be finished before the town’s 2020 Comprehensive Plan were to come out, there would be an amendment to
the current plan and if it is not, it would go into the next comprehensive plan. Minner could not confirm when the map would be completed.
To move the plan forward, the town would have to discuss hiring a consultant to review the buildings in the historic district to determine what is “historic.” That process wouldn’t start for some time as bids would have to be collected from a request for proposals, and the town may possibly seek grant funding for such a study, Minner noted.
Elkton is considering making changes to its historic district, refining the zoning overlay to specified buildings rather than sweeping areas.