Kent County News (MD) urges commissioners to do more for preservation

Kevin Hemstock, the editor of the Kent County News, wrote a piece in his regular column this week asking the commissioners there to do more for preservation.  Since this piece so effectively points out the value of preservation for a rural Eastern Shore county, we’re republishing the full piece here with permission. 

– – – – – Kent County News

 County allowing its heritage to be razed

By Kevin Hemstock

Published: Thursday, November 6, 2008 2:24 PM CST

The current Kent County commissioners – Roy Crow, Ron Fithian and William Pickrum – continue to steward the dismantling of this county’s heritage by failing to do more to encourage property owners to preserve the county’s oldest edifices. The most recent monument to their lack of vision is the Cosden Murder House, one of the most famous historic houses here, albeit by the infamy which took place there 157 years ago.

The house, a focal point of county folklore, where four people were brutally murdered in 1851, was apparently demolished in the past couple of months without a word to the county planning department.

Blay’s Range, another house on the Maryland Inventory of Historic Places, fell to the bulldozer earlier this year. It’s surprising that a property owner would wish to destroy important pieces of history, but no laws were broken nor codes violated when these houses were reduced to landfill filler. And that’s the problem – there is no impediment. The blame for demolition falls mostly on the commissioners, for making it as easy as possible for anyone to bulldoze anything.

It’s ironic if you think of it – hundreds of dollars, sometime thousands, must be spent on the numerous permits and inspections to build, say a house or a farm machinery dealership. Yet to knock a structure down, however old it is – whether or not Washington slept there or Columbus paused while exploring the New World – you need only go into the county office and fill out a form. No fee is required. No historic list keeps it safe. No historic event there keeps the wrecking ball at bay. And in Kent County, it seems you don’t even need to get the “no-fee” permit. There doesn’t seem to be much of a penalty if you fail to get one.

Why bother to encourage people to save old houses? Because even if you despise historic preservation, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that there’s a value to old things. Ask any antique dealer. And in a county that’s a little short on factories or oil wells for economic benefit, it’s important to care tenderly for anything that might prove an economic boon.

Kent County has a long, interesting history. That history, tangibly represented by its old buildings, both public and private, draws tourists who spend money at stores, restaurants, B&Bs, gas stations, etc.

History can also whip up scholastic enthusiasm, sell development, create interest in history-related retail and become a valuable marketing tool.

If the old buildings all go away, so will the tourists who were driving the Chesapeake Country National Scenic Byway to see what the big to-do is. Their money, that helps fund everything else, will also go away. Then pretty soon you’re just another rest stop on a state highway.

Can you force landowners to preserve the old buildings? Absolutely not, nor should you. Property rights are immensely important. But you can make it worth their while to preserve, and give them pause before they demolish.

How? It’s not algebra. Many communities around the nation are encouraging property owners to preserve and maintain and upgrade old buildings through tax incentives like tax discounts and rebates. Cecil County does that. On the demolition side, a permit fee of say, $100 – like Queen Anne’s County charges – will do the trick.

None of this is new advice to the commissioners – we covered this same ground in a 2003 editorial. Members of the Historic Preservation Commission, to which they pay lip service, recently gave the same advice. So, is it apathy or ignorance preventing a forward preservation momentum? Neither tag is complimentary.

While the blame for the demise of the county’s old buildings falls mostly on the commissioners, they aren’t the only ones culpable. In fact, some of the very ones who claim to be proponents of preservation are noticeably lacking in zeal. The preservation community needs to act more aggressively to put pressure on public officials to be more proactive. It’s easy to talk the talk. Less so to make a difference.

The commissioners should immediately consider and approve demolition fees that can be made to vary by square footage, or use or historical significance. That amount charged by Queen Anne’s County is a good ball park. No need to set precedents, here, the wheel is already invented. Even Millington charges $50. The fee should be reasonable but if the structure is listed on the Maryland Inventory of Historic Places then it should be higher. A strong penalty should be included for those who knock something down without a permit – how about $10,000 – whatever it takes to ensure compliance.

You can’t save everything. If a historic house must go, then a preservation survey should be done. Such a survey was requested, but apparently not done with the Cosden house. In the future, these should be mandated not just pretty-pleased with sugar on top. If it isn’t undertaken, there should be a stiff penalty.

Because the truth is, once you knock an old house down, you can’t grow another.

The county should also support the philosophy of preservation, even if it hurts. Let’s start with rehabbing the granary at Turner’s Creek Park, as has been promised for so many years. This vandalized, garbage-strewn historic county property has become emblematic of the preservation lethargy that is sapping this valuable resource.

It will take a concerted effort to preserve what remains of the tangible remnants of the county’s wonderful, colorful history. That includes the preservation community, landowners and local government. It is up to the current commissioners and those who follow, to make sure their legacy won’t be the destruction of the county’s legacy.

Meantime, the ghosts of the victims of the Cosden murder no longer have a place to roost – even their burial sites were not marked. For those who want to know, their names were William Cosden, Mary Ann Cosden, Amanda Cosden and Rebecca Webster. Who knows where their restless spirits will now call home?

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