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New Castle County moves to boost historic preservation efforts

Tom Byrne
Delaware Public Media
The Houston House in the Village of Bayberry North near Middletown is a recent example of "demolition by neglect" on New Castle County

In recent years, New Castle County has seen a number of historic properties deteriorate beyond repair.

But New Castle County Council this week took some steps to address "demolition by neglect."

Contributor Larry Nagengast details what a new ordinance does to improve historic preservation in New Castle County.

New Castle County Council took a step forward in preserving the county’s past this week, passing an ordinance designed to reduce incidences of “demolition by neglect” by requiring owners of historic structures to better maintain them.

The ordinance also provides incentives to developers who promise to preserve historic structures as part of their development plans and clarifies the oversight functions of the county’s Historic Review Board.

The measure, cosponsored by two Democrats from Brandywine Hundred, Dee Durham and John Cartier, and a Townsend Democrat, David Carter, passed by an 11-2 vote at the council’s meeting Tuesday night.

“This is a really, really good bill,” Carter said moments before the roll call.

“It covers a lot of territory in a broad way, but there’s always more to be done,” Durham said Wednesday.

Durham and Carter, both elected in November 2018, have joined with Cartier to become the council’s strongest advocates for historic preservation.

Richard Hall, general manager of the county’s Land Use Department, called the passage “a big win for the county and for historic preservation.” He said the measure “modernizes, updates, cleans up and clarifies how historic preservation is treated” in three major sections of county law that fall under his department’s jurisdiction: the unified development, building and property maintenance codes.

Credit Tom Byrne / Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
Damage seen at the Houston House near Middletown in June 2019

The ordinance’s passage caps a tumultuous year on the preservation front, highlighted by a prolonged battle over the fate of an 1880 farmhouse in the Village of Bayberry North, near Middletown, that demonstrated the limitations of the Historic Review Board in preserving historic properties. Despite promises made to the county and the community more than a decade ago to preserve the building, known as the J. Houston House, Blenheim Management Company, the developer, allowed it to deteriorate, and then requested a demolition permit, in part so it could build more houses on the site. The board determined that its authority was limited to requiring the developer to document the house’s history, but it could not prevent its demolition. Blenheim, however, has deferred any plans for new construction on the site, and the farmhouse has not yet been torn down.

The ordinance is an outgrowth of work of the Historic Preservation Working Group formed by Durham last year and comprised primarily of citizen preservation advocates and members of the county’s Department of Land Use.

“This is a major piece of legislation that never would have taken place without the formation of the working group and the [unsuccessful] consideration of other ordinances” that were studied by the working group earlier this year, Durham said.

After seeing the effort of the working group, she said, “Land Use realized that they had the support to do something major” on historic preservation.

In the spring and early summer, Land Use managers and preservation advocates took different approaches with the legislative proposals. Land Use wanted a comprehensive ordinance, but Durham, Carter and others said the Land Use plan wasn’t strong enough to accomplish their goals. Land Use, on the other hand, opposed ordinances drafted by Durham and Carter that would have, among other things, required the county to conduct annual inspections of historic structures and required developers to include detailed maintenance plans for historic structures that were located within the areas covered by their subdivision plans.

"This is a major piece of legislation that never would have taken place without the formation of the working group and the [unsuccessful] consideration of other ordinances.' - New Castle County Councilwoman Dee Durham

Despite those early differences, Hall said that “where we ended up is about where we started” and Durham noted that the approved ordinance includes provisions for annual inspections and requirements for preservation maintenance plans for historic structures that are part of major subdivision plans. (A major subdivision plan is one that includes more than five lots.)

Key provisions include:

When a developer prepares a major or minor land development plan that has an historic resource that qualifies for historic overlay zoning, the parcel that contains the historic resource must be rezoned with the historic overlay before the plan is officially recorded with the county. Also, for major subdivision plans, developers would be required to submit a detailed plan for the restoration, maintenance and preservation of the resource.

“If we say something, we mean it,” Hall said. “This will better ensure that the structures will be maintained.”

The preservation plan would have to include a third-party estimate of the cost of restoration and short-term maintenance, coupled with a performance guarantee equal to 20 percent of that cost, either as a letter of credit or held in escrow by the county. The ordinance also requires that all the restoration and short-term maintenance obligations in the preservation plan be fulfilled before permits for 50 percent of the community’s dwelling units are issued.

"If we say something, we mean it. This will better ensure that the structures will be maintained." - Rich Hall, New Castle County Land Use Department general manager

If these provisions had been in effect when the Village of Bayberry North received county approvals in 2003, the recent controversy over the Houston House would have been avoided, Hall said.

A section on adaptive reuse in historic overlay zones – devising a new use for a historically significant structure – would permit certain uses not ordinarily permitted within the underlying zoning classification. For example, a historic house in a residential zone that has a historic overlay could be converted into a café, a hardware store or an antique shop, provided that certain other conditions are satisfied. The idea behind this provision is that providing a developer with more options would increase the likelihood that the historic structure would be preserved. 

Councilwoman Lisa Diller, a Newark Democrat, voted against the ordinance because she felt the language in this section could change the character of a neighborhood, even though Hall said that proposed reuses would be subject to review by both the Historic Review Board and the county Planning Board. “It’s not going to turn [a historic structure] into a Walmart,” Hall said.

The ordinance also offers developers incentives in connection with land development applications and preservation plans. Depending on the situation, developers may qualify for a reduction in impact fees related to libraries, parks and other county facilities, or for density bonuses, which would allow them to build more units than would normally be permitted for the project’s size.

Another section of the ordinance requires that, when a demolition permit application is filed, the Historic Review Board must consider whether the structure can reasonably be adapted for another use. In such cases, the demolition applicant must show that it is impracticable to sell the property or receive a reasonable rate of return as a rental, by providing two years of sales or rental listing documentation as evidence. The applicant must also show that the deterioration of the property was not the result of “intentional or gross negligence” by its owner, lessee or person in charge.

Credit Larry Nagengast / Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
The Forwood School in Brandywine Hundred was another example of "demolition by neglect" In New Castle Ciounty

As a way to prevent incidences of demolition by neglect – the practice of letting an historic structure to deteriorate until it can no longer be preserved – the ordinance requires the county to conduct annual inspections of properties within historic districts to ensure that they comply with the county’s property maintenance code. The Land Use Department had previously contended that annual inspections weren’t necessary, claiming that only two of about 80 properties that would require inspection have posed problems in recent years. “We thought this was a solution that was looking for a problem,” Hall said, “but in a spirit of cooperation we were willing to keep it in. It wasn’t worth sacrificing the ordinance over that item.”

Durham expressed a similar view on the overall process, saying she would have liked the ordinance to have accomplished more but “it’s a balancing act of how far you can go and still get seven votes,” the majority needed for council to pass an ordinance.

While Land Use originally contemplated an ordinance that Hall said would “take care of housekeeping stuff,” the department actually “moved the ball forward from a policy perspective.” While acknowledging that issues can always crop up, he said he hopes the department “does not have to spend a lot of time on historic preservation legislation in the foreseeable future.”

Durham says she expects that she and other preservation advocates will continue to take “little steps here and there” to advance their objectives.

As an example, she noted that earlier this month she introduced an ordinance that would require the county to begin the process to place historic overlay zoning on any property the county acquires that might be eligible for this classification. The measure would bar the county from reselling any such property before the review process and the zoning overlay, if required, is complete. Durham said she became aware of this issue after learning that the county had acquired a site with potential historic significance through a sheriff’s sale.

“Cumulatively, we are making a difference,” she says.



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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