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Historic preservation battle heats up in New Castle County

Larry Nagengast
Delaware Public Media
The Jester Farmhouse sits in county parkland on Grubb Road

Efforts to strengthen historic preservation in New Castle County are taking shape as the county’s Historic Preservation Working Group starts drafting ordinances to address a variety of ongoing issues.  The group, created nearly a year ago, includes three County Council members determined to make progress.

Their effort comes as the fate of the Houston House- a historic home in Village of Bayberry North, near Middletown – is closer to being decided by New Castle County’s Historic Preservation Board.

Contributor Larry Nagengast has been following these issues and updates them this week.


While New Castle County preservation advocates contemplate whether the fate of the Houston House is demolition or collapsing on its own, they’re waging a long-term battle to prevent similar episodes from occurring in the future.

Participants in the county’s Historic Preservation Working Group, set up last year under the leadership of County Councilwoman Dee Durham (D-Brandywine West) are drafting ordinances that cover a range of issues – everything from strengthening rules to prevent “demolition by neglect” to recognizing owners who have taken steps to preserve and maintain their historic properties.

The first of these proposals, drafted by Councilman David Carter (D-Townsend) following a hearing of the county’s Historic Review Board on the Houston House issue last June, is about a month away from reaching county council for a vote, Durham says. Carter’s proposal would establish new standards for the preservation of historic structures or sites that are located within the area included in a land development or subdivision plan.

Other measures – some already introduced and others still in draft form – should receive the full council’s attention later this year, Durham says.

"We have to strengthen the code. We're not going to agree on everything, but we have to do the best we can." - Kevin Caneco, Historic Preservation Working Group participant

“We can never let this happen again,” says Kevin Caneco, a working group participant who has been fighting to preserve the Houston House, located in the Village of Bayberry North, just north of Middletown. “We have to strengthen the code. We’re not going to agree on everything, but we have to do the best we can.”

The county council has three members participating in the working group – Durham, Carter and John Cartier (D-Brandywine East). Other participants include representatives of several departments of county government, including Land Use, as well as an array of county residents interested in preservation issues.

“The group has been helpful in raising awareness about interest in historic preservation in the county, and in providing input into what has and what hasn’t been happening” Durham says. “Because of the working group, we’ve made Land Use recognize that the time is right to address inconsistencies and strengthen the [county] code.”

The group’s last scheduled meeting, set for March 30, was postponed due to the ongoing coronavirus state of emergency, but Durham distributed a collection of proposed ordinances, mostly in draft form, for members to review.

Some of the drafts prepared by individual council members, primarily Durham and Carter, address their top priorities. While the Land Use Department, which would be responsible for implementing any measures passed by county council, recognizes the importance of historic preservation, it is questioning the need for some of the proposals.

In a May 1 email to working group members, Land Use General Manager Richard Hall wrote: “New legislation is needed to some degree to advance historic preservation priorities in the county. However, it seems this recent approach is over-relying on local legislative actions, some of which we think have marginal benefits, or less.”

"New legislation is needed to some degree to advance historic preservation priorities in the county. However, it seems this recent approach is over-relying on local legislative actions." - Rich Hall, New Castle County Land Use Gen. Mgr

Hall would rather see fewer ordinances and more attention paid to other strategies, including “public-private partnerships, financial resources, community involvement, incentives for preservation, and, yes, strong policies.”

While Hall says his department recognizes the importance of historic preservation, the tone of his message suggests that the working group might be trying to do too much too soon.

But Durham says that “Land Use has had 20 years to protect historic resources, but I haven’t seen it happen…. Now we’re playing catch up, trying to make up for lost time.”

Carter sums up the differences between Land Use and the preservation-minded council members this way: “We want mandatory, they want voluntary.”

In Carter’s view, “We [the county council] legislate. We write the law. They implement it. It’s not their job to write the law.”

Even so, the most comprehensive of the drafts being circulated is a document prepared by the Land Use Department  titled Historic Resources Enhanced Fact Sheet. Durham describes as “an omnibus historic preservation bill” and notes that it proposes multiple changes to the county’s building code and the Unified Development Code, the law that governs land development issues in the county. Durham notes, however, that many of the suggestions in the fact sheet are not as extensive as the recommendations in the ordinances that she and Carter have drafted.

“Land Use did write one comprehensive bill,” she says, “but why did that happen? It was because of the working group’s focus on this issue.”

The Land Use proposal is an acknowledgement that “a lot of things need updating,” Durham says, “but it doesn’t move the ball far enough.”

In one way or another, most of the proposals in the county’s legislative pipeline address aspects of “demolition by neglect,” the practice of developers who acquire properties that include aging structures of historic significance and, rather than preserve them, let them deteriorate to the point where they claim the only reasonable option is to tear them down. The Houston House matter in Bayberry North is not the first occasion in which a developer has sought demolition of a historic structure as part of a plan to build houses, offices or shops on the site.

Credit Larry Nagengast / Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
The old Forwood School on Silverside Road in North Wilmington is one example of 'demolition by neglect' in New Castle County

Barbara Benson, chairman of the county’s Historic Review Board, agreed that the county should strengthen its rules concerning demolition by neglect but declined to comment on the various draft ordinances because they will eventually come up for review before the entire board.

Here is a look at some of the items the working group is now reviewing.

Protecting historic properties: Carter’s proposal, which is expected to receive a hearing from the county’s Planning Board within a month, and then advance to county council for a vote, would establish new standards for the preservation of historic structures or sites that are located within the area included in a land development or subdivision plan. It would require that any historic resource identified for retention be zoned “H (Historic)” before, or when, the plan is legally recorded. Part of the plan would include a detailed maintenance program approved by the Land Use Department to ensure that structural components are protected and reinforced to reduce the potential for demolition by neglect. Items subject to stabilization would include the roof, windows, chimneys, columns and beams, as well as weeds and other exterior conditions that could lead to deterioration.

Demolition permits: Carter’s proposal would clarify and extend the timeline for issuing and executing demolition permits. The measure would change the time frame for the Land Use Department’s internal review of whether a structure (generally one at least 50 years old) requires a Historic Review Board study before demolition from “a 20-day period” to “20 working days.” Currently, the Historic Review Board may delay a demolition for up to nine months from when the demolition application was filed, to provide time for interested parties to seek alternatives to demolition. Carter’s revision would start the nine-month delay on the date the Historic Review Board provides the applicant with its opinion on the structure’s historic significance.

Annual inspections: Durham has drafted an ordinance that would amend the county’s Property Maintenance Code to require annual inspections of all historic structures, coupled with citing the owner for any violations found and following up until they are corrected. The draft also calls for providing photographic evidence of each violation to the Historic Review Board and providing an annual summary report to both the board and county council.

Property tax exemption: Durham is considering introducing an ordinance that would add properties that include historic structures to the categories eligible for exemption from county property tax. “It’s just a concept. I’m not sure whether it will be introduced,” she says.

Historic marker program: Durham is pushing for the county to set up a program that would allow owners of historic properties to purchase commemorative markers that could be placed near the front door of their buildings. There are currently more than 70 structures in 43 historic districts that would qualify for the plaques. The brass plaques would cost about $150 each. While the draft proposal calls for property owners to pay for the plaques, Durham thinks that many council members would pick up the tab from their discretionary funds as a way to thank owners for preserving historic properties

Scenic viewshed protection overlay district: While not directly addressing demolition by neglect, this ordinance sponsored by Durham would create a special zoning category to protect the views along designated scenic byways in the county – the Brandywine Valley, Red Clay Valley and Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad byways. The ordinance would set standards for building height, location, signage, parking and landscaping on projects within these zones in order to preserve, as much as possible, the views that currently exist.






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