Elkton Historic District Commission Advises Town the Regulations are too Restrictive for the County Seat

A substantial old commercial building on North Street prepares to wrecking ball as room is made for another parking lot in Elkton

Concerns about enforcement of Elkton’s historic district ordinance were put on the table for the Mayor and Commissioners at the monthly workshop.  The matter came up as the last item of business on an unusually long three-hour session jammed with developers bringing up other extremely technical regulatory issues related to a Planned Unit Development (PUD) with 2,500 units and another builder seeking to straighten out municipal obligations as he has arranged to purchase water from United Water Company.  There was also an unscheduled visit from Artesian Water and feedback that the town’s sprinkler ordinance was going to hurt buyers and the municipality

Members of the town’s Historic and Architectural Review Committee (HARC) brought up the last concern, not developers, upset landlords, or complaining citizens. Four of the five HARC members appeared to ask the elected leaders for directions, they remarked initially. However as the discussion continued for a little over an hour, most of the HARC panelist advised the elected leaders that the current requirements are far too strict for Elkton so they suggested eliminating the ordinance. “Because we don’t have guidelines for the town, we operate under the Secretary of the Interior Standards. So far I don’t think anything we’ve ruled on has met those standards. We’re not sure this board understands what those standards are or that it would even want those standards because they are very restrictive” Paula Newton, the chair began.

Just by forming the committee, the town is obligated to operate under the Secretary of Interior Standards, Mark Clark added. “It’s very restrictive. The state regulations say you must be in compliance with the 200-pages of the National Park Service standards. . . It would not allow vinyl siding or vinyl windows. . . I don’t know of any property in Elkton that has met the Park Service standards. . . . It’s not that I’m against them, but in this economy no one is going to want to do that. People are not interested.”

Clark continued by noting that he didn’t “think the commissioners want to empower “ HARC to enforce those regulations. It’s hard to start telling “people you don’t do this, you can’t do that. You must use wood shingle, you must restore your windows or if you replace them they must be custom made. These standards are like Monticello. . . . Are we going to get some kind of policing power to give us some kind of power to say sir you’ve got to take those windows out. I can’t see Elkton doing that. That’s what the standards say that you’ve told us to operate under.”

There’s not really a historic corridor in the town, Josh Brown added. Other towns have opted to not have a historic overlay district, but have decided to have locally developed design guidelines. “But what you’ve created here is an overlay where we are in charge of maintaining to the very minutiae. . . . We want to know from you before we make the 200-page document clearer, because we’re not allowed to dilute it.”

When elected officials pressed for ideas on what the committee members recommended, Josh suggested the town “get out from under Title 8 (state requirements) by passing a local law to reduce the district. If you really want architectural controls, don’t enforce it with historic preservation. That’s the wrong method.”

“How would something that like that help prevent the destruction of historic buildings, Paula inquired of Josh. As that discussion evolved, Commissioner Jablonski remarked, “What you’re saying is we have to do away with the historic district?” “You could make it smaller if you want to, but when it comes to that district we have to go with those guidelines” Josh responded. Or Mark Clark suggested that the town prepare a municipal ordinance that would enable the town to draft its own design guidelines, standards that wouldn’t be a restrictive at those required by the Maryland Historic Trust. Still driving home the point about the problems with the current ordinance, Clark added, “There are some houses on Main Street built in the 70s, but we still have to say to that guy you can’t use vinyl siding. . . . What the people of Elkton want, I think, is the general impression or look. I think we could be somewhat flexible. It wouldn’t be Title 8 of Annotated Code of Maryland, it would be based on town of Elkton code.”

“Do you get any support from the state?” Commissioner Hicks asked. “The state preservation planner [Maryland Historical Trust] quotes chapter and verse from the Bible of the National Park Service. It’s his job to preach that purist view” Mark answered.

As the bulk of the discussion had shifted to center on doing away with the Historic District regulation, Paula returned to the original point concerning the committee checking in to see what the town leadership wanted. “What are the consequences of not having a historic district? We just wanted to make everybody aware. I think it requires a little more thought.”

Elkton’s Main Street Manager, Commissioner Jablonski volunteered to send an email out to Maryland Main Street Coordinators. We have quarterly meetings on this subject. If anyone has redone anything, I’ll see if any other town has their own set of guidelines.

With the clock ticking past 7 p.m.. and the once packed meeting room having emptied out except for two lone observers, Mark Clark had the last word on this subject for the evening on the historic fabric of the county-seat. “Elkton unfortunately is Swiss Cheese. There’s a bunch of holes where people tore buildings down for parking lots. There’s a bunch of holes in it downtown. There are a few things to save, but what develops the characters of this town are some of the side streets,” Mark concluded. With that the mayor brought the long session to a close.

What HARC Member Mark Clark called the “Swiss Cheese” affect, the tearing down of old buildings to make room for parking lots in Elkton is shown in this mid-Wednesday afternoon in the heart of downtown Elkton. The old street was lined with lined with early 20th century to late 19th century structures not too long ago.

9 responses to “Elkton Historic District Commission Advises Town the Regulations are too Restrictive for the County Seat

  1. Too bad the building that went in where the Newberry’s store was, couldn’t have been an example of a historic building. Too often when older buildings are added to, the design of the additon is completely different from the original. Two good examples, one in Elkton is Union Hospital and in Havre de Grace, Harford Memorial.

    • John, Elkton definitely suffers from what Mark Clark called the “Swiss Cheese” affect, the irregular loss of buildings to create parkings lots and that in turn causes the loss of a historical character. I fully agree with Mark on that point as he related it to downtown Elkton. That didn’t happen in Havre de Grace. Somehow they preserved their downtown and that’s one of the things that’s helping make it a tourist destination.

  2. Exhausted in Elkton

    Elkton’s neighborhoods are threatened with deterioration and sometimes the commissioners try to do something about it like create minimum housing/appartment rental standards so the deterioration doesn’t accelerate but they don’t follow through on anything. Just drive around town and anyone, anyone can see the risks, if you’re trying to create better neighborhoods and bring business back. What are the mayor and commissioners thinking with this? I live in one of the better historic areas and we need some of these basic protections to keep our property values from deteriorating more. What do the mayor and commissioners want Elkton to become? Do they drive around? Apparently none of them do.

    Elkton homeowner.

    • Exhuasted in Elkton.

      We agree, Elkton’s neighborhoods need support to help with stabilization and revitalization and that issue of requiring upkeep and strengthening regulations is something that comes up at town meetings. But as you indicated, that’s about the end of it. We think the historic district ordinance, if enforced, would help the town strengthen some of it’s historic areas. Look at the East Main Street area. It’s hard to find a better area in any place that is worthy of preservation and still had its historic feel. We were surprised the historic district commission wouldn’t agree with that.

      As for the point about the mayor and commissioners, just to keep the record straight, it was not the town board that brought this subject up. It was their apponted committee. Probalby the commissioners were surprised by this and need time to think over what were some strong recommendations. Hopefully they’ll seek additional guidance on the subject.

      Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  3. After that fix up downtown, they’ve got plenty of 1980s facades downtown to show off and those parkings lots no shortage of of them to. You won’t have any trouble finding parking in the historic district.

    • Sanford, certainly there’s something to the point HARC member Mark Clark made about what he calls the “Swiss Cheese” affect in the central part of Elkton where substantial brick buildings from another era were lost of to turn much of North Street into a parking lot. That results in the loss of that old town ambiance for sure. But it’s exactly those types of losses that a historic district is designed to mitigate. A review process might have helped reduce the losses so the town center had more character, which would help it compete in the big box era. And you’re right you don’t have any trouble finding parking downtown. But also don’t forget there are sitll some fine old structures downtown that are worth saving. If we don’t have an ordinance, we just might get more parking lots.

  4. There you go again Joe. Look at what has happened to Main St since u said u were going to fix it up. Now are trying to mess up what little we still have left in the old part of town.

  5. Watchin Joe, the mayor and commissioners didn’t have anything to do with creating this one. As we reported, this was brought up by the members of the Historic District Board, the board the town appoints to protect its historical resources. The town board simply had this put on the table before them and they were probably surprised by the entire matter as they hadn’t been briefed on the issues. In fact the entire thing was sort of surprising and not everyone of the HARC members attending the meeting suggested elimination of the district. Granted most of the time was spent discussing it’s elmination and/or the reduction in size of the district, but we don’t believe that’s the official position of the entire HARC board (or at least they’ve never taken a public, official vote to confirm that the HARC board’s policy).

  6. Pingback: The McCool Armory, one of Elkton’s Historic Properties, Declared Surpulus | Window on Cecil County's Past

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