Plan for old jail moves ahead as new plan saves 1870’s structure

Elkton Town Hall, Nov. 14, 2012 – Home Partnership, Inc., was back before the commissioners to submit a new concept plan to create a 50-unit elderly housing project on the old jail property on North Street.  This new proposal addresses feedback that was given to the developer by the town’s historic architectural review committee.  The board responsible for protecting historic resources rejected a plan last July that called for demolishing most of the old jail while saving the front facade.  Commenting on the update, Mr. Hodges, the company representative, said, “We’ve actually preserved the entire jail facility, which addresses one of the major concerns the committee had.”

“This is an important project because of how it will impact the town’s revitalization plans,” Mr. Hodge’s added.  The nonprofit corporation needs a resolution of support from Elkton and the town administrator was instructed to draft the documents for consideration at an upcoming board meeting.

Commissioner Jablonski also noted the value of the project for downtown.  “I love the project. It’s beautiful. They are keeping the historic jail. It’s going to be great for downtown, especially because there is a waiting list at the senior apartments we have now of about 25 people so it’s needed.  I think it’s a great project.”


Cecil County Emergency Responders Say Goodbye to Rosemary Culley, One of Their Own

Elkton, August 22, 2012 — It was a sad day at Singerly Fire Company in Elkton today as about two hundred emergency responders, friends and family said goodbye to E. Rosemary Culley.  The 76-year-old pioneer in Cecil County Emergency Services passed away on August 17, 2012.  She started as a volunteer in the Perryville Ladies Auxiliary in the 1950s and ended up retiring as the director of the Department Emergency Management in 1997.  Along the way she broke barriers and served as a role model for emergency responders.

Rosie was honored with a traditional fire-service funeral.  Fire engines from all county stations escorted the family and mourners to the North East Methodist Cemetery.  Engine 314, Singerly’s old 1952 Oren, made the run too, as the flower wagon.  When the long line of police vehicles, fire apparatus, EMS units and personal cars passed Station # 13 on Newark Avenue in Elkton, on-duty personnel stood at attention in front of engine bays draped with black mourning bunting.

The crossed ladders tribute honored the public servant.  As the funeral procession slowly passed the station-house, mourners went under an arch formed by two aerial units towering over Newark Avenue. A United States Flag hanging from the ladders flapped gently in the August breeze.

Rosie was remembered as a dedicated volunteer and career public servant who rose through the ranks as she devoted much of her life to citizens of Cecil County.  Rosie will be missed.

So What Do You Do With An Old Jail?

The preserved Talbot County Jail serves as an office.

The question of what do you do with an old jail was before the Elkton Historic Architectural Review Committee (HARC) the other evening.  While the panel grappled with that and whether they should change a town regulation that would allow a proposed senior apartment complex to be built on the parcel, some on the panel argued that no one is interested in saving buildings like that.  So we thought we’d make a quick check around Maryland to see if other 21st century uses have been made of these structures.One acclaimed project that has received awards took place in Princess Anne, MD.  There the “Grey Eagle” confined notorious types in the Somerset County from 1857 to 1987.  Standing vacant for over a decade after it was replaced, the Town of Princess Anne considered demolishing the building in 1999 because of “its increasing decrepit state.”  However, that community saw economic development value in adaptive reuse, so the political leadership decided to restore the structure with the help of the Maryland Historical Trust and other stakeholders.  Today, this finely restored prison adds greatly value from a practical standpoint as it’s the headquarters for the Princess Anne Police Department. It also is a strong contributor to the historic district and, according to the town, “its’ a symbol of pride.”

A casual survey of other Maryland communities will find additional examples.  In Easton, a town that is particularly proud of its past and works to protect its architectural resources, the 19th century lockup still stands appearing the way it has since the 19th century.  It serves as Office for the States’ Attorney.  In Denton, Leonardtown, and elsewhere, you will also find them serving as offices, county jails and museums.  In a larger sphere beyond Maryland, they’ve been turned into restaurants and bed and breakfasts.

The developer appearing before the HARC committee recognized that there could be options beyond his initial proposal.  More than once, he reminded the officials that he was appearing before the committee to present an idea, get their reaction to this first proposal, and see what other ideas might exist to leverage the value of the historic structure.

The restored Princess Anne Jail in Somerset County, MD. Photo Credit: jimmywayne’s photostream

While Debating Role of Historic Districts to Protect Old Cecil County Jail, Attempt to Change Elkton Regulation Fails in Vote After Vote.

The prison portion of the 1870s jail, sheriff’s office and home.

Elkton Town Hall, July 12, 2012 – The Elkton Historic Architectural Review Committee (HARC) tangled with the matter of whether the board responsible for protecting historic properties should approve a change to municipal regulations Thursday evening.  The debate centered on whether a rule stipulating that new construction in the district can’t increase the size of an existing building by more than 25% should be eliminated.This matter came up as the Home Partnership, a nonprofit developer of affordable housing, wants to take the vacant jail and turn it into a 48 unit senior’s apartment complex.  That plan, aired before the mayor and commissioners a day earlier, preserves about 10 percent of the 1870s structure and increases the size of the original work by 75%.  To eliminate that legal barrier, the nonprofit submitted wording for a rule change that eliminates the size restriction but still requires additions to be minimally disruptive and in keeping with the original style.Grappling with the rule change, two HARC members expressed concerns about “arbitrary changes in regulations.”  Paula Newton emphasized this  as she told colleages, “First, I have problems with changing ordinances because an ordinance is in place to protect people and property.  Second, that’s the only historic structure on this block.””There’s never going to be a jail there anymore,” Mark Clark replied.  ”This building is obsolte.  It would be wonderful if someone would bring it to it’s former glory, but in this case no one is going to bring it to it’s former glory.  And it’s not what we’d want. ”

As that discussion continued for over an hour Chairperson Newton remarked, “We’re not getting off dead center here.  We can’t proceed with the other requested exceptions unless we change this ordinance.”  So Clark moved to approve the developer’s rewrite of the Elkton code, but the motion failed as there was a tie vote.  Newton and Josh Brown opposed the motion, while Clark and Steve Leonard voted for it.

So the dialogue continued as Clark suggested other considerations and eventually asked “can we entertain another motion on the subject?”  Building an argument for a second motion, Clark advised that he’d taken a survey of selected people about whether the 19th century building should be preserved.  “No one is interested in saving a building like that. . . It’s a jail.  It’s obsolete.”   Clark has made similar arguments before.

The committee is charged with protecting architectural resources and it operates under the Secretary of the Interior Standards, Newton countered.  “This project violates eight out of ten of those standards. . . . More of it needs to be preserved,” she added as she went through the national preservation guidelines.

Over the next three-quarters of an hour Clark introduced two more motions, modifying the developer’s language as he tried to pick up one additional vote.  Again Clark made the point — no one is interested in saving a building like that.  “Part of a loaf of bread is better than no loaf of bread at all.  We think someday this guy is going to appear and we’ll save the whole building.”

Clark and Brown exchanged points of view about a number of technicalities related to historic districts and preservation.  “I’m always nervous when you are left with vague language. . .  Even if you strike out the size requirement, the change won’t be minimal,” Brown observed.  “You are asking me to decide whether that’s minimal?”

With the discussion between the two getting really tangled up about responsibilities of a historic district commission, Clark inquired, “Are you a Democrat or Republican?  Democrats want a bunch of rules and laws passed to save society and Republicans want individuals to make the decisions.”  Since this discussion was bogged down, Newton stepped in remarking, “I keep thinking of Mr. Simmers and everyone told him you can’t save that bridge.  You can’t save that bridge. And he saved that bridge.”  “I don’t even know what that’s about,” Clark responded.

The debate about the mission, purpose, and role of HARC continued as Newton advised that “all we’ve done is settle” with the applicants when something is requested.  “We’ve demolished two houses.  Why do we have a historic commission?”

With three failed attempts now on the record during nearly two hours of deliberations, the effort was finally abandoned and the committee moved on to other items on the agenda.  The committee also agreed there was no need to consider the developer’s other waivers for the code as it stood didn’t permit those changes.  But they were alerted to the fact that the Mayor and Commissioners could intervene and hold a public hearing to change the law.

Concept plan for new senior citizen housing project presented to the mayor and commissioners.

Cecil County Arts Council Gala Makes Elkton’s Main Street a Destination for Hundreds As Museum On Main Street Exhibit Opens

“The melting pot,” a grand gala hosted by the Cecil County Arts Council, kicked off the arrival of the Smithsonian’s traveling exhibit, “Journey Stories” in Cecil County yesterday.  As the evening got underway, downtown Elkton shops remained open to celebrate the occasion.

For July, it was a comfortable evening as those doors opened to greet a gathering of over 300.  Enjoying the professionally curated exhibit, along with performances by the Heritage Troupe, this crowd filled the cultural center on E. Main Street.  Out in the street, enjoyable original music flowed while people strolled along, stopping at businesses to sample fine foods and browse the merchandise.

It was delightful to see the business area filled with strollers, enjoying the ambiance of the evening, the entertainment and the display, while sampling local delights offered by seven restaurants.  Strollers paused, as they passed from shop-to-shop, enjoying an old Main Street.

This was a wonderful demonstration project for the community.  Hundreds of patrons made the county seat a destination and were introduced to an old Maryland community’s town center.  After the show, a number of the older businesspeople remarked about how surprised they were with the turnout and how they too enjoyed the evening.  It reminded them of a time long ago when Main Street was bustling place on shopping nights.

Thank you Cecil County Arts Council for sponsoring this fine gala opening.  Now look forward to a full calendar of events sponsored by all the collaborating groups, including the Cecil County Public Library and the Historical Society.

“Journey Stories,” a Museum on Main Street exhibit, is brought to the state by the Smithsonian and the Maryland Humanities Council.

They Say There Are Ghosts in the Old Cecil County Jail As Elkton Board Mulls Over What to Do With The Building

Elkton Town Hall, July 12, 2012 — The old Cecil County jail has always been a place for some good ghost stories. And this evening was no exception, as the Elkton Historic District Commission held a long hearing on whether a developer could demolish most of the building, while preserving the front facade. As motion after motion failed to get enough votes to pass and the commissioners debated weighty legal and procedural matters, an old sheriff’s deputy lightened things up a little by sharing some accounts of strange late night occurrences.

Back in the 1960s, in the middle of long Cecil County winter night when one elderly jailer, Elwood Racine, guarded seven prisoners while the one deputy working the graveyard shift patrolled the county, the road-man would get a radio call to come back to office to help the turnkey. While all the prisoners were  securely locked down and sound asleep on this particularly quiet night footsteps were echoing through the cell blocks, as if someone was aggressively running around. Both of them clearly heard the noises so they were sure a prisoner was outside the cell.

The two grabbed those big keys and carefully opened that heavy door, the one that secured the prisoners in the 1870s lockup, in case an offender was attempting a jailbreak. A careful search would find nothing on those quiet 1960s night as the handfull of detainees were sleeping soundly. But back at booking, those heavy footsteps would start again as if someone was descending the metal steps going down to the main cell block. At other times they’d hear those heavy iron barred doors slam shut. These sorts of things occurred periodically, but those two lawmen never did find anyone out in the block on those dark, lonely nights so long ago.

The officers eventually got used to things going bump in the night so they’d shrug it off, assuming it was a ghost of prisoner who’d breathed his last in the old prison as he met the hangman’s noose or that it was some other unsettled spectral type of thing.

While the Historic District Commissioners continued mulling over the technicalities of changing ordinances so the project could move forward and debated whether the old jail had any historical and architectural value, one thing was obvious. It’s still good for stories..

Developer Interested in Old Cecil County Jail Asks Elkton for Financial Considerations and Change in Zoning Ordinance

A day before a nonprofit affordable housing group is scheduled to appear before the Elkton Historical and Architectural Review Committee (HARC) to present plans for the old jail at 214 North Street, the developer met with the Mayor and Commissioners.  Frank Hodgetts, representing Home Partnership, outlined plans to build a 50-unit age restricted multi-family housing apartments on the 1.12 acre parcel.

To allow the project to go forward, he asked the town to modify its historic district zoning regulation, which stipulates that a project can’t increase the size of an old structure by more than 25%.  Suggested language for the code revision was submitted, which apparently eliminates the size restriction but says that the work must be in keeping with the architectural nature of the project.  “You’ve pulled out the stinger so to speak, but you are still giving them some claws,” Lewis George, the town administrator remarked.

Home Partnership also noted that they are going to ask for financial considerations.  Specifically, they will seek relief from about half of the property taxes for ten years.  It was estimated that the property would generated $18,250 in revenue for local government.  And they will ask that various permit and inspection fees be waived.

The concept plan calls for keeping the front façade and building the 50 unit modern structure in the the rear of that.  When an official asked about the history of the building, Hodgetts replied “We don’t know exactly what’s historic yet.”

The 1871 structure has two sections.  In front, the two story pressed brick wing facing North Street contained the sheriff’s house, office and the dining room.  In back, the portion with thick, solid granite walls was where the prisoners were securely detailed.  Somehow the post-Civil War lockup managed to outlive its usefulness to the county in a mere 128 years so in 1984 inmates moved to the new detention center on Landing Lane.

Town Administrator George wrapped things up by noting the process required to change a zoning ordinance.  HARC, the board charged with protecting Elkton’s architectural and cultural resources, will get their first chance to formally hear the proposal at a meeting Thursday evening at 6:00 p.m. at the town hall.