Twenty-three years is a long time to await renovation, but the perseverance of preservationists in Montgomery County, Md., has finally paid off. In the historic community of Somerset, a crown jewel that was damaged by fire, abandoned, and boarded up for all this time, is finally being brought back to life. This success has been, in part, due to the county`s preservation program exercising its legal authority under its preservation laws, combined with use of a wide range of local and statewide incentive programs, as well as a big dose of patience and luck. The process is a good case study of how local preservation offices can achieve positive outcomes - even on properties that have been considered "too far gone."
The Queen Anne-style house on Dorset Avenue in Somerset, which is the subject of this article, was heavily damaged by an accidental fire in 1978. Even though the fire mainly affected the rear section and part of the roof, the damage was never fixed and the house was boarded up. The owners moved out, never to return. Trees, shrubs, vines and grasses, on the approximately one acre of grounds grew like a jungle, giving the turreted Victorian house a Sleeping Beauty`s castle image. This was quite a sight in the affluent neighborhood surrounding the house, which is just a stone`s throw from the District of Columbia line in Friendship Heights and immediately south of the Bethesda Central Business District.
In 1990 a portion of Somerset was designated as a local historic district, subject to the protections afforded by the Montgomery County historic preservation ordinance. This district designation was controversial, and it took a great deal of public debate and even a local referendum within the town to get it enacted. Ultimately, a district of approximately 50 structures was approved by the Montgomery County Council - including the deteriorated house on Dorset Avenue.
Somerset is a very special community within Montgomery County and the Dorset Avenue house is a key property within the historic district. The Somerset Heights Colony Company began development of 50 acres of farmland as a trolley suburb in 1890. An advertising brochure for the development proclaimed some of the advantages of living in Somerset: "Away from the river; no malaria; no mosquitoes. Residents are citizens of Maryland, and therefore entitled to vote."
Five of the original partners in the company were associated with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and four of them built homes in the new development. The distinctive house on Dorset Avenue - with its wrap-around porch, projecting gables with fish-scale siding, and corner tower capped by a bell-shaped roof - was built in 1893 by Harvey Wiley, a chemist for the Department of Agriculture and one of the five founders of the town of Somerset. Dr. Wiley was the force behind the enactment of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, which led the way to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration. From 1938 to 1978 it was the home of Arthur Cuming Ringland and his family. Ringland was the founder of CARE, an international organization that delivers food and other essentials to the needy.
In the early 1990s the county preservation office was approached by elected officials from the Somerset Town Council who had concerns about the deteriorated Dorset Avenue house. The property was overgrown and, in the view of many residents, an eyesore. Montgomery County`s historic preservation ordinance has a strong demolition-by-neglect provision which is enforced by the county housing code enforcement staff in cooperation with historic preservation staff. Thus, with the encouragement of local Somerset officials, county staff made a site visit and cited the owner with demolition by neglect. County staff developed a list of repairs that needed to be made to stabilize the house and to forestall further deterioration. These included painting the exterior, repairing holes in the roof, tightly boarding up all windows - in essence, the county wanted to accomplish a good "mothballing" of the house.
Unfortunately, the owner did not want to make the repairs and, instead, filed for a Historic Area Work Permit to demolish the house. After several hearings before the Historic Preservation Commission and a site visit by commission members, the commission denied the request for demolition in 1995. The commission felt that it could not approve demolition of a structure that was this important to the community and to the history of the county. As the home of one of the founders of Somerset, the house is a critical ingredient of the Somerset Historic District, even without its other significant historical and architectural attributes.
However, this was not the end of the story. In fact, in many ways it was the beginning. The owner filed an appeal of the Historic Preservation Commission`s denial with the Montgomery County Board of Appeals. The com-mission prepared its defense of its decision, lining up witnesses to testify about everything from the structural integrity of the house to takings issues such as realistic investment-backed expectations for this property.
The owner, now represented by a local attorney, was lining up witnesses as well, and gathering support from the Somerset town officials who were concerned about the appearance of the property. Few Somerset officials felt that it was technically feasible to fix the house up and most believed that an attractive new subdivision and development of the property was preferable to the status quo. Therefore, the county preservationists were facing opposition from not only the owner but also from much of the surrounding community. Newspaper editorials began to appear criticizing the commission for not allowing the demolition of the house, and the owner even approached several members of the Montgomery County Council about de-designating it.
The battle lines were drawn, but, happily, the battle never happened. The chair of the Historic Preservation Commission, who was a Bethesda-based architect, had a good working relationship with the attorney who was representing the owner. Through a number of conversations with the attorney, he enumerated the various incentive programs available for renovation of the historic house. He also emphasized the commission`s flexibility in considering alternative proposals that would allow some new construction on the site while still retaining the historic building.
The incentive programs in place were quite impressive to the attorney: Not only is there a county historic preservation tax credit of 10 percent of approved exterior restoration costs on locally designated historic buildings, but the state of Maryland also has a tax credit of 25 percent of approved interior and exterior restoration work. These programs can be bundled together with the resulting 35 percent credit being very attractive. In addition, Montgomery County`s historic preservation law allows for the acceptance of historic preservation easement donations- which have the potential to garner the donor tax benefits both from the IRS as a charitable donation, and from lower local property tax assessment rates.
All of these incentive programs were put in place at different times and for different reasons, but as a whole they offer an excellent palette of opportunities for the encouragement of preservation activities. Legislation creating the county tax credit had been approved in the mid-1980s and had been sponsored by a Montgomery County Council member who was not a great fan of historic preservation. He saw it as a way to compensate owners for the "burden" of historic designation. The state tax credit program was created in 1996 and was part of a comprehensive effort to enhance the economic development potential of historic preservation activities in Maryland. The Montgomery County easement legislation was enacted in 1989 to assist owners of historic sites in intensely zoned central business districts to combat high property tax assessment rates (although no properties of this type have made use of the easement program to date).
With information about the incentives in hand, the attorney worked to assist the owner in looking for a buyer who would be willing to take on this project. During this effort, the owner kept the appeal submission at the Board of Appeals pending with multiple continuances requested and approved - and so the potential of a big preservation battle always loomed in the background. Over a period of years, different developers stepped forward with proposals for subdivision of the parcel into three lots, with the historic house on one lot and two new houses constructed adjacent to it. Unfortunately, due to subdivision criteria regarding the required minimum street frontage, most of these proposals called for moving the historic building-which some developers actually proposed as a total demolition and re-creation project. However, the commission reviewed at least one specific development proposal on a preliminary basis and gave a strong indication that it would be flexible in working on a solution that saved the historic house intact.
As proposals came and went, the commission chair continued working with the attorney to keep him apprised of changes and improvements to the incentive package - the state of Maryland program has been improved almost every year since it was originally put in place. In addition, the commission chair consistently argued for patience and persistence in handling this case. Some county staff wanted to simply argue the appeal at the Board of Appeals and play out the regulatory/legal aspect of the case to its conclusion. But this was a risky proposition which could have resulted in losing the house. Instead, the chair kept emphasizing the incentives and the potential "win-win" option of finding a new buyer.
In late 1999 potential buyers emerged who were a preservationist`s dream come true: a young couple who already lived in Somerset and wanted to renovate the Dorset Avenue house as a single-family home with no subdivision or new construction on the nearly one-acre site. Their proposal did include a very large rear addition to the historic house and landscape changes, such as the installation of a swimming pool; however, it was by far the most sensitive and preservation-friendly proposal that had been seen to date. To accomplish their goals, the new buyers would need all of the incentives offered on the property, in addition to a good supply of guidance and assistance from county preservation staff.
With assurances that the county preservation staff and the Historic Preservation Commission would work closely with them to achieve renovation of the Dorset Avenue house, the new buyers took possession of the property. The Board of Appeals case became moot and was dropped. Through 2000 there was close coordination on a variety of fronts: preservation staff worked with the new buyers on their efforts to clear the property of overgrown vegetation and to develop a design concept for the large rear addition that could be approved through the commission`s design review process. In addition, staff worked with the new buyers to develop a preservation easement that could be donated to Montgomery County, giving up all development/ subdivision rights on the large parcel. This included directing the new buyers to a local architectural historian who could help them prepare a nomination for placement of the house in the National Register of Historic Places. This step was necessary for the owners to get full IRS tax benefits from their planned easement donation.
By the end of 2000, the property was clear of over-grown vegetation, it was in the National Register, a historic preservation easement that will maintain the open space around the historic house in perpetuity had been donated, a Historic Area Work Permit had been approved on the county level for the large rear addition, and construction activities on this project were beginning. One less than positive note to this preservation success story is that the state historic preservation office denied the new owners approval of their initial application for the 25 percent state tax credit. The basis for this denial was concern about the size of the new rear addition and the landscaping changes to the large site, such as installation of a swimming pool. However, the owners are considering an appeal of the denial.
The lesson that Montgomery County preservationists have taken away from the saga of the Dorset Avenue house is that local preservation ordinances and regulatory authority are powerful tools that should be used as needed. However, the job of a local preservation program is not only to regulate; it is also essential to have good "carrots" to offer, a full package of incentives plus staff available to assist property owners in making use of those incentives. With laws and incentives both in place, it is also important for local preservationists to exercise patience and discretion to achieve the best possible solutions. As stated by the com-mission chair who was involved in all aspects of the Dorset Avenue case: "The lesson of this preservation success story for me is that we must be patient and work cooperatively with even those citizens who are less preservation- minded…It is important to hold firm to preservation ideals, but not cultivate an adversarial posture." #ForumJournal
Publication Date: Summer 2001