Habitat for Humanity Frederick executives said during a drama-filled Historic Preservation Commission hearing Thursday night (2015/08/13) in City Hall that the City had ratted on a 2005 deal to permit demolition of the condemned Rose Log House at 107 East 5th Street.
The case has not been resolved in two long hearings July 23 and August 13, and now goes to a third hearing August 27.
At the August 13 hearing Habitat president Kenneth Dunnington waved a copy of the deed to the 107E5th property saying he was offering it to the City at no cost. If the City did not take the deed within 30 days, Dunnington said, Habitat would cease paying its taxes on 107E5th and the City would get the title in a tax delinquency sale.
“Habitat would not have (bought) this property if the possibility or reality of demolition were not on the table,” said Dunnington. “We are not in the business of historical restoration. That is not our mission. (We’re) an agency to provide affordable housing for the citizens and residents of Frederick.”
Habitat had wasted too much money while searching out ways to avoid demolition to satisfy the HPC while being told by expert after expert the building was beyond repair.
If now the Commission voted to allow demolition Habitat would move quickly to get rid of the eyesore. It planned to sell the cleared lot to a builder of homes opposite (Ron Hemby of Hemby Homes) who would build a single family house on the property – similar to three he has opposite and slightly east on the same street.
Dunnington said: “We are concerned about how the (blighted) property detracts from the aesthetics of the area.” Habitat was committed to a neighborhood revitalization area 4th to 7th and East to Bentz. Right in the middle of this area the deteriorating log house worked to undermine revitalization.
In an obvious shot at a statement of HPC commissioner Carrie Albee at the first hearing July 23 that she’d rather let it “turn to dust” than vote for demolition of 107E5th, Habitat’s Dunnington said: “Habitat is not content to simply sit and watch the property turn to dust. We feel the community deserves better.”
In 2005 “everyone” agreed it had to come down
Billy Shreve now a county councilman, but Habitat president in 2005 when the log house was acquired, said there was agreement by “everyone” in the City that Habitat would repeat the procedure it had followed in the successful rebuild of a blighted house on B&O Avenue behind the railroad station. As in B&O Avenue they had City support at purchase for a careful take down of the c1800 East 5th Street log house, salvaging salvageable elements, trashing the unsalvageable and building a new house to the style and scale of the old.
Senior City officials including then planning director Chuck Boyd, and the HPC chairman of the time, HPC staffer Barbara Wyatt, and other City officials all agreed that the East 5th St log house had to be demolished. That was the understanding when Jim Schmersahl, then city director of community development and pointman on blighted properties came to Habitat and suggested they buy the property so that they could repeat the take-down and new-build they’d done at B&O Avenue.
The Historic Preservation Commission has obstructed every effort by Habitat over the years to proceed.
“Ten years and $40,000 spent, and it’s still there”
“Here we are ten years later and the building is in even worse shape. I’m surprised the City has allowed it to stay. It really is a detriment to the community,” Billy Shreve said. The building was now “falling down.”
He brought a “souvenir” to the hearing – a piece of rotting log from the building and showed how it comes apart in your hand: “It just turns to dust.”
In his Facebook page Shreve calls the HPC’s obstruction at 107 East Fifth St: “bureaucracy at its worst.”
At the hearing he said bluntly: “Our partnership with the City is finished.”
$40,000 spent by Habitat now – to no effect
The past ten years Habitat had persistently worked to find ways to satisfy the Historic Preservation Commission’s desire to restore the building or find a new owner to restore it, the Habitat president Kenneth Dunnington said. What with the original purchase price ($9,000) and other expenses Habitat had spent about $40,000 total on the log house to no effect.
It was money they could have used to help put a needy family in a new house.
Habitat was criticized by HPC staff and commissioners alike for neglecting maintenance on the log house.
Dunnington said: “We categorically deny that we have neglected the property.”
He said they’d built a chainlink fence around it, kept the lot mowed, and paid for taxes and insurance, all the while attempting to see if there was a way to restore the building, or find someone prepared to take it over.
State preservation agency said ‘No thanks’
They had repeatedly offered to give it away.
Preservation Maryland, the state organization officially dedicated to preserving old buildings was among those offered 107 East 5th at no charge. They had declined to take it, saying it was beyond preservation.
HPC “stands above the City” – chairman Winnette
The Commission chairman Scott Winette said any City undertakings on demolition carried no weight since the Commission is above the City.
“The City has to come to us (for HPC clearance on its own projects.) The City has to follow our Guidelines as well. And we don’t have any record that the City itself got permission from the HPC to demolish the structure. Everyone knows that OK?”
Winnette belittled the 2005 agreement that Habitat said it had to allow demolition as meaningless backroom handshakes, saying:
“So (you see) any kind of backroom handshakes doesn’t work…”
“Never trust government”
Shreve responded: “Yes, that’s why I say: never trust government, unless you have it in writing. There is never a deal (otherwise.)”
At another point in a back and forth with Commissioners Shreve said: “We were a bit naive back than, unfortunately. We believed that (City) government would honor their word.”
As president of Habitat in 2005 he said: “we felt we were in partnership with the City. But here we are ten years later wasting resources, wasting valuable money (on the log house) that (they) have to go out and earn, and we are not getting anywhere. The partnership is over.” (2015-08-14)
Twelve people went to the microphone to make public comment. All favored or accepted demolition, several urging archeological investigation to accompany it.
An immediate next door neighbor spoke pithily: “I live next to a tinder box. I live next to a dump. I live next to a zoo. It is very unsafe.”
Anthony Owens the well known local builder and sculptor of long white hair, muscle-bound bare arms and tattoos was adamant: “It is black and white. It has to come down.”
Dan Stoufer who introduced himself as a historian said the cost and effort needed to restore the log house was more than it was worth, said the “only feasible decision” was demolition.
Stephen Meyer across the road said he was a supporter of the HPC and spoke of a balance between preservation and economic development but said the log house had become an ‘attractive nuisance’ that was dangerous and difficult to keep children away from. We support demolition.”
A Maxwell Square resident Howard Cox said there comes a time when the life of every building comes to an end: “Let’s honor this property by allowing it to reach its conclusion in life so it can be used appropriately for some use that is consistent with the purpose of the neighborhood and is not an eyesore and a threat to safety….I join my neighbors in urging demolition”
An old lady with oxygen tubes to her nostrils who said she’d lived on 5th Street all her life said: “I’d like to see it torn down too… we don’t want to look at it no more. It’s the worst house on the street. They’ve took (taken) better houses down. We’d just like to see it go.”
Long archeological dig advocated
Nancy Geasey VP of the Monocacy Archeological Society – they have the groaner of a subtitle ‘We Dig Frederick’ – did not oppose demolition but called for ‘low impact’ stipulations barring heavy machinery on the site until a full archeological dig had been done. Six months might be needed, she said first up, but later in the hearing asked not to be limited to that. “The archeologists might kill me” if she limited them to that.
“Archeology is a very slow and painstaking operation… we shouldn’t put a time limit on it.”
City staffer on the case Christina Martinkosky said she thought any demolition permit should be conditional on some more documentation of the log building including plans and elevations of the log house. Habitat has already submitted a long report by Douglass Reed, a veteran historic building surveyor, but his report contained no detailed plans.
Usually archeological requirements go along with the permit for new construction, Martinkosky said. It would be difficult to enforce archeological requirements as pat of demolition.
In discussion among commissioners Rebecca Cybularz led off saying she had looked at precedents and revisited the site: “I keep coming back to (the fact that) a significant amount of material would need to be completely replaced.”
She’d heard guesses that this might be 70%, even 90%, and added: “Once more than 50% is replaced then to me it is not a historic building any more. I can’t see that that it is a historic building any more.”
Commissioner Carrie Albee expressed an opposite viewpoint: “My understanding of a contributing resource is that it helps define the district. This is certainly the case… Defining the district is not just chronological abut what part of the story does it tell. And this particular building it touches on,,, the earliest period of Frederick’s history. A t1745 to 1800) it’s older than most of the buildings in the city.”
Frederick, she noted, is often described as having a Federal, Greek Revival and Victorian architecture.
“This earlier pre-style vernacular type of building is considerably under-represented. Also log construction…was once very prevalent, it is now underrepresented.
“We have a lot of fine, high-end high style buildings in Frederick, and that’s great. We all love them… But it’s important to also have a representation of what the working class people were doing.
“(Next), does it add architectural value. I think it does… for the reasons mentioned in defining the district.“
Albee had done a survey of 4th, 5th and 6th streets, she said, and found only five or six log buildings left, compared to 99 log buildings in 1835, when 9 of 21 buildings on 5th St were log.
The few that remain, Albee said, are specially important.
She skipped over the condition of the building.
Demolition has a whole chapter (Ch 11, p147 on) devoted to it in the Historic District Guidelines but, remarkably that chapter has not a single word on how the condition of the building should be factored into a decision to approve or deny. The only reference is in the Guidelines Introduction (Chapter 1) where the building’s condition is alluded to almost as an afterthought. Under P. Degree of Importance 1. Required consideration. the Guidelines state: “When the Commission makes a decision regarding construction, reconstruction, alteration, moving or demolition, it must consider the historical, archeological and architectural value of the resource, including its integrity.”
Integrity is a fuzzy word from the French with two meanings – good character on the one hand, wholeness or soundness on the other. The word ‘integrity’ is sprinkled liberally around the HPC Guidelines. Used 32 times by my count. Where it is used with an adjective - design integrity, historic integrity, architectural integrity or structural integrity – in those cases the meaning comes through. But instructed to take account of a building’s “integrity” (unadorned with an adjective) the word is pretty meaningless. Commissioners will ignore it, or seize on it and attribute meaning to it that suits their purposes.
Despite its frequent use in the Guidelines ‘integrity’ does not appear in the seven-page Glossary of terms at the end of the Guidelines (p152 to p158.)
So Commissioner Cybularz can argue plausibly that the sorry condition of Habitat’s log building and need to replace so much of its fabric – its lack of structural and exterior integrity – disqualifies it as a Contributing Resource, while Commissioner Albee can argue that such integrity is left unmentioned in all the discussion on Demolition in chapter 11.
Shoddily written Guidelines allow opposite conclusions to be drawn from the same agreed facts.
Commissioner Dan Lawton announced his belief that the log house has to come down despite the fact that it had been neglected and that he thought it was a Contributing Resource: “ I think it is in the best interests to bring this building down. But I think it is a contributing resource. We must be very thorough about documentation. The Reed report is not enough. Let’s make sure we retain a good memory of it at least.
Lawton commented on the “problem” in the Guidelines saying in 11- C Demolition by Neglect: Contributing properties that are greatly deteriorated because of deferred maintenance will not be approved for demolition (p147) whole two pages later in the same chapter 11-I-1B that demolition may be approved if its retention would cause undue financial hardship to the owner, or not be in the best interests of a majority in the community. (p149)
Out the window goes the p147 bar on approving demolition of neglected properties?
Chairman Scott Winnette said he was persuaded by Albee and Lawton: “I am more confident that I can say it is contributing while not having to say it must stay up.“
Albee moved that the log house was a contributing resource. She got the votes of Lawton and Winnette. Cybularz was joined in opposition by Tydings, who had not spoken to the issue.
“See you all (again) in two weeks,” chairman Scott Winnette told the crowd. The 3/2 vote declared the property ‘contributing’ which under procedural rules forced the vote on demolition to be deferred to the next meeting August 27.
Earlier hearing on the East 5th St log house
At their July 23 hearing the Historic Preservation Commission were deadlocked 2/2 on an application by Habitat for Humanity to demolish the Rose Log House at 107 East 5th Street. The building thought to be about 210 years old has been unoccupied for nearly 20 years and is on the City’s blighted building list. Habitat has been issued code violations by the City. The building is condemned as ‘Unsafe,’ ‘Unfit for human habitation’ and open to vagrants. The brick sidewalk alongside is weed-ridden, and the whole an eyesore.
Chairman Scott Winnette and HP Commissioner Rebecca Cybularz voted in favor of the initial motion to declare the log cabin ’non-contributing’ but commissioners Carrie Albee and Dan Lawton voted No. In an attempt to break the deadlock Albee moved a motion declaring it a contributing resource but failed to get a second. The commissioners quickly voted to ‘continue’ the case to the hearing of the Commission August 13. If past practice is followed the demolition will likely be approved in the end, although a central objective of historic preservation regulation is to prevent demolitions.
The first of the commissioners to speak July 23 was Commissioner Carrie Albee strongly dissenting from the staff report:
“I respectfully disagree with the staff opinion that this building is non-contributing to the HD. I think it represents the earliest period, potentially even earlier than we’ve been able to document, of the City’s existence. It is eligible as an example of workmanship, construction and design. A very interesting and unique approach to residential construction.
“I’m struck by Mr Reed’s comment that he was standing in a room that hadn’t been changed in 200 years and he found it still interpretable, which sounds an awful lot like able to convey historical significance. I do feel the loss of this building will compromise the integrity of the streetscape. Basically we’ll just have an open lot. Furthermore regardless of the good intentions of the applicant I think we send the wrong message by allowing the demolition of this building.
“I can’t be comfortable with losing a building of this age, of this unique character, just because it is in, admittedly, bad condition.”
“I’d rather see it sit there and turn to dust…”
Then Albee dropped the bombshell from the arsenal of hardcore preservationism: “Frankly I would rather see it sit there and turn to dust than allow premature in my opinion loss of the building by demolition.”
Commissioner Dan Lawton was more equivocal:
“I’ve been by it many times over the years, and I’ve been back again today. You walk up to it and say: ‘This is a piece of junk and needs to be torn down.’ But then you look more carefully and you read this wonderful report from Mr Reed and you realize all the detail that is there still, and what potential has been lost.”
Lawton chided Habitat for Humanity for being “on the opposite side of historic preservation.”
Commissioner Rebecca Cybularz and Chairman Scott Winnette each expressed themselves supportive of the staff view. Winnette scolded Habitat for “disregard and disrespect” for the property, and said the City could have handled it better. However: “I will be supportive of the staff opinion on this considering its current (deteriorated) status. I can’t see a way forward in restoring this property.”
Rebecca Cybularz: “… I regrettably (she meant regretfully?) move to find the Rose log house at 107 E5th St to be non-contributing building to the historic district because the historic integrity of the design, materials, workmanship and (?) have been significantly compromised.”
The staff report for case HPC14-1031 written by City staffer Christine Martinkosky supported demolition.
It said the building “has not been maintained” resulting in condemnation by the City. “Serious structural issues” can be seen from outside and the building is “unsafe to enter.” Logs have “severe termite damage” which could spread to neighboring buildings. Pecora Engineering reported in October 2014 that the building is “beyond any feasible methods” of rehabilitation and indeed is in “imminent danger of collapse.”
The building by now is missing important historic elements, Martinkosky notes. No historic doors, windows, or siding. It is therefore “unable to physically demonstrate significant aspects of its past.”
In the jargon of preservationism it therefore lacks “historic integrity” and gets classed as a “non-contributing resource.” Martinkosky said that at one time it had been a “contributing (historic) resource” but over time it has lost that.
An assessment by KCI back in 2011 also found the building “non-contributing” then due to loss of integrity.
Given its “negative visual impact” – in plain english it is an eyesore – its demolition would “not compromise the streetscape or surrounding properties.” Martinkosky wrote, while saying that “loss of a rare c1800 building is “very disappointing.”
The staff recommended demolition be approved conditional on more documentation including plans and elevations. Habitat did submit a large report by a veteran historic buildings surveyor Douglass Reed. The City’s Christina Martinkosky has assembled several relevant research documents on the building.
Popular sentiment is that the continued existence of the wreck of the Rose log cabin “compromises the streetscape” and surrounding properties, but the HPC Guidelines do not look at it from that perspective.
The staff report calls it a case of ‘demolition by neglect’ the term of preservation art for standing aside and letting nature, slowly but steadily take the building down. A more sympathetic term used in the Guidelines is “deferred maintenance.”
The HPC Guidelines p147 under the heading C. Demolition by Neglect. state: “Contributing properties that are greatly deteriorated because of deferred maintenance (’neglect’ in plain english) will not be approved for demolition.”
There is general agreement that the Rose log house was once very much a ‘contributing (historic) resource.’
The HPC Guidelines devote a chapter (Ch 11 p147 to p150) to Demolition and in section B. say: “The Historic Preservation Commission was formed to preserve the historic district and its contributing resources… When a contributing historic resource is demolished, a vital and tangible link to the City’s past is lost. This loss disrupts the historic streetscape and decreases the historical and architectural integrity of the entire historic district. The guidelines are intended to discourage the demolition of contributing resources; therefore, they force the Commission to use a review process that is deliberate and thorough. Demolition will be considered only when all possible alternatives to preservation have been exhausted.”
“Exhausting all possible alternatives” over an exhausting ten years
It can be argued that indeed “all possible alternatives (to demolition) have been exhausted”… in the fifteen years the building has been unoccupied, generating code violations, annoying neighbors, generating multiple studies, and eventually classed as “blighted.” So now logically the building can be demolished. Trouble is: for over a decade the property owner has been paying city taxes, neighbors have been putting up with an eyesore and a put-off to visitors and possible buyers of properties in the street. Only upside for neighbors is that by depressing their property values the old log cabin did help keep their city taxes down.
A 5-page ‘property history’ produced by City staff in February 2008 names a Palmer Hicks as the last recorded occupant of the building based on a directory of 1990. The owner was David Merle Grossnickle who died in 1999 at age 83. A representative for his estate sold it to Habitat in March 2005.
We talked to Doug Chappell, a builder who has done many preservation projects and who lives right across East 5th street from the Rose log cabin. He said that the last tenant lived in the house rent free for several years after the death of the owner. That would seem to be 1999 to 2002 or so. With no one taking responsibility as owner the building began to deteriorate. The house became vacant around 2002 or 2003, and became blighted.
Jim Schmersahl, the City’s director of community development at the time says part of his work was trying to find people with an ability to rehab or replace blighted buildings. He put Habitat in touch with the financially distressed owner of a blighted house on B&O Avenue near the railroad station. After Habitat successfully rebuilt the B&O house house he suggested, apparently late 2004 they repeat the rebuild at the Rose log cabin which was getting violation notices from the City’s code enforcement inspectors, and was deteriorating.
Back in 2005 when Habitat took over the condemned property they paid $9,000 computed to cover back taxes due to the City. They have put $40,000 into in total they say. Open lots free the encumbrance of an historic wreck the land is worth about $50,000 to $60,000 according to realtors and recent land sales of unencumbered lots nearby.
The HPC seems likely to require $20,000 or so worth extra historic documentation and archeological investigation work as a condition of demolition. So there is more time and taxes. Thanks to the HPC the City’s dishonoring of its contract with Habitat back in 2005 will probably end up costing it a small 5-figure loss. And of course if we have another real estate bust – it is seven years since 2008, so we are about due – then the loss to Habitat could be a large 5-figure number.
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