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A lot of effort went into saving local historic property

March 01, 2001

A lot of effort went into saving local historic property



I have always written these articles in the third person, letting the buildings and their histories speak for themselves. This time, I would like to describe my involvement with this property.

In 1998, Lisa Prejean, editor of the Lifestyle section, asked if I would do an article on the National Register sites in Washington County. To do this, I asked Jane Hershey, who knows the secrets of nearly every road and old building in the county, to go with me to find them all.

Most nomination forms were written before street addresses were assigned, so the combination of distances from intersections and descriptions of the buildings included in these forms - now 24 years old in this case - were all we had to go on.

It was obvious when we found it that it was slated for demolition. We were sad that such a lovely building was let go. Indignant, we went to the Washington County Commissioners to plead for the house, pointing out that it was listed on the National Register and that they should set an example for preservation.

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The commissioners were surprised to learn that the house was on the register and were supportive of saving the building. Jane and I, along with a small group of old-house buffs, were given a tour of the interior. Peeling paint festooned from walls and ceilings like Spanish moss, and boarded windows made it very dark, but the house was solid and well laid out.

The downstairs woodwork dates from the 1840s, while the upstairs woodwork is original. It was such an exciting tour that two of the participants expressed interest in buying the property and eagerly pursued Dean Lowry, the county's Real Property Administrator.

Nothing happened.

The Black Rock Golf Course board resisted parceling off the farmhouse. It was difficult for them to imagine how to build the planned nine-hole addition and still buffer the house. (The first rule of historic preservation is to reach the owner before plans have been made.)

Because the commissioners control the land, the golf course board came around, devised a parcel that allowed them to keep the nine holes, and became excited about having the house restored.

Getting the parcel defined took time. The health department had to determine the required 10,000-square-foot septic reserve. Perc holes were dug. Much of the acre is in flood plain and would not qualify. At last it was decided to give an easement for this reserve across the road under the proposed nine-hole golf course. With county staff working on important projects worth millions of dollars, Ditto Knolls was a minor consideration. Two years passed.

Nothing happened.

Charen Rubin, a Realtor specializing in historic properties, volunteered to help. She developed a plan for the sale, and the commissioners were again supportive. Historic Preservation easements were worked out with Maryland Historical Trust, the plat was drawn, and the golf course staff agreed to clean and mow the yard.

On Jan. 2, the commissioners gave one last boost by approving an advertising budget of $3,000 (to be reimbursed from proceeds), agreeing to have the house broom-cleaned, the boards removed, and making suggestions for the sale date. We were on a roll.

But it wasn't over yet. On Feb. 9, I was told that a conversion issue with Program Open Space existed, that the heads of Department of Natural Resources, Planning and Housing and Community Development all had to sign off on the plan.

It might take nine months. Our plans were set, the dates were on the calendar, our ads were being submitted. Not again!

I called everyone I could think of: the governor's office, Sen. Donald F. Munson's office, DNR Finally, through the offices of Ron Bowers and his friendship with John Braskey, who heads the Cumberland office of Planning and Housing, we received commitments to facilitate the process.

We pushed ahead with the plan: Historic national register home surrounded by golf course to be auctioned! Now, something IS happening. On March 17 and 28, the property will be open for viewing by prospective bidders from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The property will be auctioned May 23 in the County Commissioners' meeting room, second floor, 100 W. Washington St. at 10 a.m.

Yvonne Hope, chair of Washington County Historical Trust, has put the property on the Web and has been getting good response. Rubin has arranged for the auctioneer and has placed the property in her ads.

Two local restoration specialists, David Gibney and Rich Bachtell, have given estimates on the costs of rehabilitating the house to help prospective bidders. We've pulled a packet of materials together to send to interested parties, and they are going out fast.

County government deserves enormous credit for going forward with this project. Staff and private citizens have been able to work together, each using our talents; and the county commissioners have given their full support from the beginning. This is not a big-money project, but it preserves a unique building, saves our landfill from having to accept the remains of another house -rehab is recycling at its utmost - puts another property on the tax rolls, turns the net proceeds of the sale back to Program Open Space, and the only cost is our time.

What could be better?

Pat Schooley is a member of Washington County Historical Trust.

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