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Politics & Government

The battle over the Houston House moves toward conclusion

Tom Byrne
Delaware Public Media
The Houston House in the Village of Bayberry North

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

Contributor Larry Nagengast looks at how the battle of the property has evolved in recent months.

After a hiatus of nearly a year, a battle between preservation advocates and a real estate developer over a 120-year-old farmhouse returns next week to New Castle County’s Historic Preservation Board.

To the preservationists, the script is distressingly familiar, yet another tale of “demolition by neglect,” a situation in which the property owner does little to maintain a structure of historic value, then argues that the only remaining remedy is to have it torn down.

The case of the Houston House, in the Village of Bayberry North, just north of Middletown, concerns more than the property owner’s desire to remove a deteriorating building that has become an eyesore.  If the demolition request is granted, Blenheim Management Company, the developer of the 951-unit community, wants to subdivide the site and build five new homes where the farmhouse now stands.

Permitting Blenheim to tear down the farmhouse and the barn on the property, and then allowing Blenheim to build new homes on the site would amount to “rewarding the developer with five additional lots for his bad actions,” says Mike McGrath, a former county planner who is now president of Preservation Delaware, a nonprofit that advocates for the preservation and maintenance of historic structures and sites.

Credit Tom Byrne / Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
The Houston House has become an eyesore to many on the Village of Bayberry North near Middletown

“If this change is allowed, it undermines public confidence in record plans,” the legal documents prepared by developers and approved by county council that detail the specifications for their projects and the locations of all the lots, roadways and open spaces within it, McGrath says.

Broadsides fired by two lawyers involved in the case – Richard Abbott for Preservation Delaware and Pamela Scott for Blenheim – demonstrate the intensity of the battle – one that concerns not only preservation matters but also where the separation of powers lines are drawn between County Council,

Following a hearing on the demolition request last June, Blenheim asked the Historic Review Board to “put a hold” on its decision, said Barbara Benson, the board’s chair.

Since then, Blenheim has been working to secure support for its plans from Bayberry North residents. Meanwhile, Preservation Delaware increased its involvement in the matter, hiring Abbott, a former member of the county council, to challenge Blenheim’s request.

In separate letters to Benson and to Richard Hall, general manager of the Land Use Department, Abbott makes two key points.

First, he writes, Blenheim’s plan breaks two legally binding pledges the developer made when the original record plan for the project was filed in 2003 – that the house and its adjacent barn would be preserved and that the site would not be further subdivided.

Second, Abbott argues that only the County Council, which approved the record plan, and not the Land Use Department, has the authority to approve changes to it.

The agenda for Tuesday’s Historic Review Board meeting says that there will be separate hearings on the two issues: first, on the demolition permit, and then on the proposal to subdivide the property.

Benson said she expects the discussion on the demolition permit to reprise much of the testimony from the initial hearing last June and that the second item – the subdivision request – will cover new ground.

"The neighbors have a right to be annoyed that this house has become a nuisance. But if it had not been neglected, it could have turned out a lot better." - Kevin Caneco, a Village of Bayberry North resident

County laws require that a preservation planner in the Land Use Department review any request for demolition of structures that are more than 50 years old and refer requests for properties that have historic significance to the Historic Review Board for a public hearing. But the board’s powers are limited. It cannot prevent demolition but it can order a delay of up to nine months to determine whether an alternative to demolition can be arranged.

No alternatives have been developed, said Kevin Caneco, a Village of Bayberry North resident who had advocated for the preservation. Scott, Blenheim’s attorney, said her client has given the Historic Review Board “historic documentation and [a] plan for memorialization of the J. Houston House.” Scott indicated that she believes submission of that paperwork will be sufficient for the board to end its stay of the demolition.

According to the agenda, Blenheim’s request to subdivide the property calls for:

  • Deleting notes on the record plan that prohibit the lot on which the structures stand from being further subdivided.
  • Amending notes on the record plan that call for the structures to remain on the site.
  • Adjusting lot lines to create four additional buildable lots and also expanding an adjoining area designated as open space.

For a developer to make changes to private open space or common facilities shown on recorded plans, the county code requires that two-thirds of the lot owners sign a petition supporting the changes. Scott says the signature requirement has been met. Caneco, noting that the developer has been seeking signatures since last summer, is concerned that some of the signatures might belong to individuals no longer living in Bayberry North.

Abbott’s letters on behalf of Preservation Delaware question the authority of the board and the Land Use Department to approve Blenheim’s request. Scott replied bluntly to Abbott. “Put simply,” she wrote, “the PDI letters have no legal merit because they ignore black letter law and over twenty years of county precedent to the contrary.”

Abbott responded sharply Monday, writing to Scott that her legal opinions are “fundamentally flawed, misstate the foundation for my legal opinion letters, and ignore certain bases for my opinion.” He alleged to Scott that “the county and your client attempted to hoodwink the public and the process by knowingly and intentionally flaunting the law.” Abbott again raised the separation of powers issue, asserting that the executive branch of the county government does not have the authority to unilaterally amend restrictive covenants that are part of a plan approved through an ordinance passed by the county council.

"I'm incredibly disappointed that our county code would allow this activity to take place." - New castle County Councilman David Carter

“This is an awfully gray area,” says County Councilman David Carter, D-Townsend, a preservation advocate who represents a portion of southern New Castle County that does not include Bayberry North. “On the record plan you have notes, and one of the original notes says the house is to be preserved. The interpretation of the Land Use Department is ‘well, the notes can be changed.’”

As of now, Carter anticipates that the demolition and reconfiguration of the lot lines will be approved. “I’m incredibly disappointed that our county code would allow this activity to take place,” he says.

When record plans are approved, Carter said, “we [the county] make a social contract with the community and with the people who move into the community. No community should be told that a property [designated to be preserved] can be allowed to be neglected and become a nuisance.”

According to the testimony at last June’s hearing, that is essentially what happened. In brief, Blenheim did not acquire the farmhouse property until the prior owner moved out, several years after the record plan was filed. By then the property had begun to deteriorate, and it was subsequently damaged by vandals. Meanwhile, the burst of the “housing bubble” in 2008 led to the so-called Great Recession, slowing homebuilding not only in Bayberry North, but also throughout the state and the nation. The recession prompted Blenheim to make several changes in its construction plans; in the interim, it took no steps to prevent further deterioration of the farmhouse.

As Blenheim tweaked its plans, it solicited the support of residents for the revisions that called for demolition of the farmhouse, the addition of several building lots and the creation of a small park for the neighborhood. Several Bayberry North testified in support of those changes at last June’s hearing.

“I’m not fundamentally opposed to putting a small park in the area,” Caneco says. “The neighbors have a right to be annoyed that this house has become a nuisance. But if it had not been neglected, it could have turned out a lot better. Now we have to make the best out of a bad situation.”

While Caneco, Carter and other preservationists seem resigned to the old house’s demolition, that doesn’t necessarily mean Blenheim will receive permission to build new homes on the site. In his latest letter to Scott, Abbott asserts that “County Council approval must be received prior to Plan approval and recordation, or else the Department will be breaking the law and the Plan will be void.”

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