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No barriers remain to demolition of historic Houston House

Tom Byrne
Delaware Public Media

A 140-year-old piece of lower New Castle County’s history will soon disappear and, according to the county’s Historic Review Board, the land on which the old farmhouse sits will then have no historic significance.

At its monthly business meeting on Tuesday, the board acknowledged that the nine-month hold on the demolition permit requested for the Houston House had lapsed, and that Blenheim Management Company, developer of the Village of Bayberry North, near Middletown, had complied with its request for historic documentation of the structure, so it could take no further action to prevent Blenheim from tearing down the old farmhouse and barn on the property.

Then, in a separate discussion of a related matter, the board decided against making recommendations on a series of requests from the developer concerning the Houston House site. There was no need to dig more deeply into the matter, the board concluded, because once the farmhouse is demolished, the property no longer merits historic preservation.

The two-story Folk Victorian home, built about 1880, was the centerpiece of a farm that operated from before the Civil War until about 10 years ago. The board has recommended that Blenheim erect two displays of the farm’s history, one to be posted near the structure’s site and the other mounted inside the Lake House, a meeting and social gathering site for Bayberry residents.

Although some intermediate steps are required, the decision opens the way for the county’s Department of Land Use to delete pledges Blenheim made more than a decade ago on the record plan for the community to preserve the old buildings and never to subdivide the land on which they stand. As part of the request, Blenheim would split the 3.3-acre farmstead roughly in half, adding one section what is now proposed as parkland while remaining silent on its options for the other portion, which could eventually become the site of several new homes. 

County Councilman David Carter (D-Townsend), a leading preservation advocate on the council, criticized the board’s decision. “It says we have a very weak Historic Review Board and a [county] administration that doesn’t put much of a priority on preserving historic resources,” he said Wednesday.

Richard Hall, general manager of the county’s Land Use Department, which oversees the board, disagreed. He described the board as “very good” and acknowledged that “we do have to improve our ordinances and policies” on preservation issues.

The differences between Hall’s department and the preservationists – led by Carter and Councilwoman Dee Durham (D-Brandywine West) – were on display during the second half of the board’s meeting, as its members discussed ordinances that the two are sponsoring. Land Use objected to both ordinances. In the end, the board voted not to endorse Carter’s proposal and gave its support to Durham’s.

The debates reflected the push and pull between the county’s legislative and executive branches, with Carter and Durham wanting to do more than Land Use desires, and Land Use warning that the proposals could have “unintended consequences” and require the department to unnecessarily expend additional resources on preservation matters. Adding another layer of complexity to the discussion is a comprehensive draft ordinance that Hall says will be introduced in County Council next week. That proposal would address multiple preservation concerns in a single package, but Carter and Durham have said that its individual pieces are not as rigorous as they would like.   

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. 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.

At a Historic Review Board hearing two weeks ago, Carter said he would be willing to work with the Land Use Department on revisions to improve his draft. However, the Land Use Department told the board on Tuesday that it opposed the current version, even though it agreed with its intent and goals. The rezoning requirement in the measure, the department said, might give property owners “a perverse incentive to demolish a historically significant structure” rather than subjecting it to the restrictions of historic zoning regulations. It also said that clarifications are needed to the language related to maintenance programs for historic properties.

The board agreed with the Land Use position and voted not to support Carter’s proposal.

Hall elaborated Wednesday, saying he believed the department’s comprehensive ordinance,  labeled on its website as the Historic Resources Enhanced Fact Sheet, would provide a more effective approach to resolving these issues. Carter, in response, said that if he cannot win sufficient support for his proposal he would “do everything I can to amend [Land Use’s] weak bill” to make it stronger.

Land Use took a similar approach to Durham’s proposal, which 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.

The department said, based on 144 inspections conducted at 66 sites over the past three years, that few properties were found to have code violations, so making annual checks would require the department to devote “excessive staff time and effort” to properties that don’t need the attention.

The board didn’t agree with Land Use’s assessment and voted to endorse Durham’s measure, which comes before county council for a vote on Tuesday. “Relying on the property maintenance code, which is complaint driven not proactive, allows too many historic properties to fall through the cracks – as the shameful Houston House situation exemplifies,” said Durham, who led the creation of a Historic Preservation Working Group last year with the goal of strengthening the county’s preservation initiatives.

The measures Carter and Durham are sponsoring are among the first of a half-dozen or so that have been considered by the working group and are beginning to work their way through the county’s approval process.

Council members “have a lot of good ideas, and they get excited about issues,” Hall says, and that sometimes includes criticism of the past work of the Land Use Department.

Carter, however, is not certain whether Land Use and the council’s preservation advocates will soon see eye to eye. “It doesn’t appear to me that Land Use values preservation very highly. If Land Use is fighting us, it’s going to be very difficult for us to bring the rest of the council along on these issues.”

Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.
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