Demolition versus preservation debate hits Beaufort as city addresses blight

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Demolition versus preservation debate hits Beaufort as city addresses blight

By JULIANN VACHON jvachon@beaufortgazette.com 843-706-8184
Published Sunday, November 29, 2009   |  1016 Words  |  news

Neighbors watched as the house at 912 Washington St., built in the 1870s and the victim of years of neglect, crumbled under the crushing force of a bulldozer this month. That same week, just blocks away, another historic "folkstyle" home constructed in the 1890s fell at 1703 Duke St.
Beaufort's Old Commons and Northwest Quadrant neighborhoods now each have one fewer fire hazard.
But tearing down a historic house because it has been deemed "beyond repair" with no hope of restoration often frustrates those who want to preserve as much of the city's character as possible, said Evan Thompson, executive director of the Historic Beaufort Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports historic preservation in the area.
"An empty lot is not progress," said Thompson, whose group agreed to the demolition, despite the lost history. "It's never easy to write a house off. But we had done our homework and knew that short of someone writing a check for free money to give to the property owner, nothing was going to happen."
A study group's recommendations earlier this year to help property owners preserve homes in the Northwest Quadrant, even when they are reluctant to do the work themselves or can't pay for it, have fueled the debate over historic preservation and individual property rights. The debate flares up with every demolition application.
Juan Singleton, owner of 912 Washington St., had been approached by different groups, including the foundation and Habitat for Humanity, in the 10 years since he inherited the house from his parents. He was asked to renovate it or sell it to someone who would, he said.
Singleton considered rehabilitating the home and said he was sad to see it go. But grants and other financial tools that the foundation and the city of Beaufort suggested didn't work for his situation, he said.
"I was in that funny situation where I had too much money to apply for many of the grants out there, but I didn't have enough money to fix the house up on my own," said Singleton, who works for the city of Hardeeville.
His father purchased the house 25 to 30 years ago. Since then, no one has lived in it, he said.
Singleton rents a house from his sister, and 912 Washington St. is the only Beaufort property he owns. Even if it stays vacant, having land in his name remains a priority for him, as it was for his parents, he said. They owned several properties in town, including Singleton's Barber Shop beside Juan Singleton's lot.
Singleton doesn't plan to sell the lot, despite pressure from groups interested in seeing the land developed.
"Other people can have opinions, but when it comes down to it, I'm the property owner, and I have to do what I feel is in my best interest," Singleton said.
For now, that means holding the property until he decides to rebuild there, something he said he hopes to do someday.
It can be frustrating, Thompson said, when people who seem to have no interest in restoring or selling deteriorating property and vacant land control some of the most historic -- and what others have called prime -- real estate in the heart of downtown Beaufort.
Real progress for the neighborhood would include turning neglected property into something that contributes to the area's unique character, Thompson said.
Toward that goal on a broader scale, many of the Northwest Quadrant recommendations submitted in August were tactics to clear overgrown vacant lots, encourage redevelopment and help struggling homeowners restore their deteriorating houses.
But if efforts to rehabilitate fail, demolition remains a last resort.
<strong>The road to demolition</strong>
Beaufort officials continually try to save historic structures from fates similar to that of 912 Washington St. and 1703 Duke St., according to Thompson and Beaufort planning director Libby Anderson.
When those efforts fail, the city sets in motion its demolition process -- one that's deliberative, and for good reason, they said.
"Once they're gone, they're gone," Anderson said.
In Singleton's case, officials looked at how the house fit into the neighborhood's historic fabric.
The home was built in the 1870s and faced south to catch southern breezes, as did most Beaufort houses built during the Civil War era.
It was nearly identical to homes at 912 Greene St. and 912 Duke St. The fact that it wasn't one-of-a-kind weighed some on the foundation's decision not to protest demolition, Thompson said.
The Greene Street house has been restored, Thompson said. The Duke Street property is on the market for $92,000 and needs rehabilitation, said Maxine Lutz, foundation executive and board assistant.
<strong>How a house ends up in a heap
</strong>
After the city designates houses as abandoned property, attempts are made to contact the homeowner, Anderson said.
If the house is deemed unfit to live in, it must be repaired or demolished, Anderson said. Owners have 30 days to contact the city about what's best for the house, she said.
The city works with the Historic Beaufort Foundation for all historic structures to make sure nothing "irreplaceable" will be lost, Anderson said. The city's Historic District Review Board has final say over whether a historic home can be demolished.
If approved, the city sets up a public hearing and gives the owner a schedule to demolish the structure.
City officials will help those who live out of town or can't set up the demolition on their own, Anderson said.
As in the case of the 912 Washington St., the city hired a contractor to tear down the house and will send Singleton a bill.
If an owner fails to pay, Beaufort puts a lien on the property, Anderson said, and has allowed residents to pay off the debt in monthly installments.
"We try to give owners every opportunity to take action on their own," she said. "If nothing has happened, the city has to step in."