Developer revises Houston House demolition plan, but objections remain
Preservation advocates directed sharp words at a real estate developer’s attorney last week as they debated the fate of a 140-year-old farmhouse before New Castle County’s Historic Review Board.
The preservationists are fighting an application by the Blenheim Management Company, developer of the Village of Bayberry North, outside of Middletown, to demolish the Houston House and its adjacent barn, which have deteriorated and been subjected to vandalism over the past 10 or so years.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Blenheim’s attorney, Pam Scott, said the demolition, if authorized, would enable the developer to add roughly half of the old house’s 3-acre site to an adjacent 3.3-acre expanse of open space, permitting the creation of a 4.8-acre community park. Blenheim had previously announced its intention to subdivide the rest of the farmhouse site to build new homes there, but it backed off that plan this week, saying it would put off that subdivision and reserve the right for future development.
While everyone else argues over it, we have to live with it." -Chris Carnelli, president of the Village of Bayberry North community maintenance corporation.
Scott did not offer an explanation during the meeting for why Blenheim had decided not to go ahead with the new construction portion of its proposal now, and she declined to elaborate afterwards.
Preservationists, including leaders of Preservation Delaware Inc., two members of the New Castle county Council and some Bayberry North residents, claim that Blenheim has failed to live up to legally binding promises made more than a decade ago to preserve the farmhouse. By failing to maintain the property, they say, Blenheim has engaged in a practice known as “demolition by neglect.”
Blenheim, however, has secured signatures from more than two-thirds of the lot owners in Bayberry North in support of its plan to create a larger park.
Most of the residents who spoke by phone during the virtual hearing said they were tired of the developer, the preservationists and the county wrangling over the issue. “While everyone else argues over it, we have to live with it,” said Chris Carnelli, president of the community’s maintenance corporation.
Joe Vannucci, another resident, described the house as “in disrepair … unsafe.” Regardless of the arguments being made, “it is not salvageable and doesn’t fit our décor,” he said.
Jay Zionkowski, who said he lives across the street, said the house “provides no value to the community … is an unsightly blight … and a danger to public safety.”
Jan Pregel, who lives close to the farmhouse, agreed with her neighbors that it is best for the it to be demolished so a larger park can be created. But she said she “gets angrier and angrier that there is no consequence for Blenheim” for not following through on its earlier promises to preserve the old buildings.
“Who doesn’t want the park?” asked Kevin Caneco, a resident who has been fighting the demolition, adding “I believe there’s something called doing what’s right” and describing Blenheim’s conduct as “a textbook example of demolition by neglect.”
Since 2009, Caneco said, Blenheim “has spent not a dime on the property” even though it had pledged years earlier, through notes on the record plan for the community, to preserve the structures.
While residents had their say, the sharpest language of the evening came from Mike McGrath, president of Preservation Delaware Inc., and two preservation advocates on county council, Dee Durham (D-Brandywine West) and David Carter, (D-Townsend) after Scott made Blenheim’s case.
In discussing the demolition request, Scott said that Blenheim would memorialize the Houston House by placing a two-foot by three-foot photo and text display of the house’s history in the Lake House, a building used by Bayberry North residents for community meetings and social events. After several people pointed out that the Lake House is locked when not in use, Scott pivoted and said the display could be erected on the planned park site.
As she explained Blenheim’s plan to add a portion of the farmhouse site to already planned parkland, Scott said that the developer no longer seeks to subdivide the remaining 1.6 acres of the site into building lots. Rather, she said, Blenheim would “reserve the right” to request subdivision of that land at some future date.
Scott also contended that a demolition would also limit the Historic Review Board’s future oversight in the community because “there would no longer be any historic resources to be protected.”
McGrath characterized Blenheim’s change as “a boil the frog slowly approach, in the hope that the frog does not realize it’s being boiled.” Not only is the developer hoping to have the county let it set aside a promise to preserve the farmhouse, he said, but it is also leaving open the prospect of being rewarded by being able to build new houses on the site later.
McGrath asked the board to table Blenheim’s request, which would normally come to a vote at its June 2 meeting, for one month in order to give county council a chance to look at the issues.
“This whole process has been very shameful,” Durham said, arguing that Blenheim had not given any evidence that it would suffer some sort of hardship if the farmhouse is not demolished. “This is a sham request.”
"The house is in pretty bad shape and there's probably no choice but to tear it down for public health and safety. But the harsh reality is this could have been averted." - New Castle County Councilman David Carter.
Carter said he was “a little bewildered” by Blenheim’s request, which he called “fragmenting the approval process” – first the request for demolition, then splitting the farmhouse site in half to create a larger park, and potentially years from now seeking a subdivision of the rest of the farmhouse site to build more homes. He repeated assertions made earlier that only the County Council, which approved the record plan for the community that included the pledge to preserve the farmhouse, has the authority to make changes to the record plan now.
When the Historic Review Board meets on June 2, it appears likely that it will release its hold on the demolition permit. Not only has the standard maximum nine-month hold already expired, but Blenheim has also provided documentation of the site’s history and no one interested in the property has come up with any alternatives to demolition.
During the hearings, members of the board gave no clear indication of their feelings concerning the proposal for creating a larger park, but there were some questions concerning whether the entire 3-acre farmhouse site might be added to the park area.
Carter said afterwards that he expects the board to approve Blenheim’s request for demolition. “The house is in pretty bad shape and there’s probably no choice but to tear it down for public health and safety. But the harsh reality is this could have been averted.”
As for the enlarged park, Carter would like to see the entire farmhouse parcel included, so Blenheim wouldn’t be able to build on the site in the future.
After the hearings on Blenheim’s request, the board did conduct a hearing on an ordinance Carter has introduced that might have prevented controversies like the Houston House matter from occurring. His proposal would require developers with plans for sites that include structures that are more than 50 years old to undergo a historic review process before their plans are approved. If the structures are deemed historic, the site would be given the protection of historic overlay zoning and the developer would have to prepare for county approval a maintenance plan to detail how it would keep the structure from deteriorating.
Officials in the county’s Land Use Department have some concerns about the wording in Carter’s proposal, Betsy Hatch, the department’s preservation planner, told the board.
Carter said he was willing to work with the department on modifications. “I don’t care how we get this done. I just want to get it done,” he said.
“This has been a long time coming,” said Barbara Benson, presiding at her last meeting after 17 years as chairman of the Historic Review Board. “This is something we really need.”