The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
What if it’s hazardous and historical?
BY ROBYN SIDERSKY
Getting an unsafe building demolished in Fredericksburg’s historic district will now require another layer of approval under an ordinance adopted Tuesday night by the City Council.
If the city’s building official determines a structure should be demolished for public safety reasons, the Architectural Review Board now must also agree with that decision—unless the structure poses an “imminent threat” to the public.
This is a change from the existing policy, in which any unsafe designation trumped the ARB’s authority to protect the city’s historic resources.
The change comes on the heels of a controversial decision to demolish a pre-Civil war house near downtown last June.
Parts of the home at 1407 Caroline St. dated to the 1700s, but it had suffered significant fire and wind damage. John Walsh, the city’s property maintenance code official, had ruled the structure unsafe about four months before the demolition because of its likelihood of collapse.
Still, some residents and city officials, including members of the ARB, criticized the fact that there was almost no public discussion before the home, which had survived the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg, was knocked down.
As a result, city officials persuaded the General Assembly to enact legislation this year that would permit localities to more carefully review a demolition order if it affects a structure in a historic district.
Previously, if a structure was deemed unsafe by a building maintenance official, the owner had three options: Board up the structure, repair it or demolish it. Under the new policy, the ARB gets to weigh in on any demolition plans unless the building is deemed an immediate hazard.
“They [property owners] can’t demolish it without a certificate of appropriateness unless it’s so bad that there is little choice but to do it,” said Walsh, the city’s property maintenance code official.
If property owners do not get permission from the ARB, they may still appeal the ARB’s ruling to the City Council.
WHAT MAKES A STRUCTURE HISTORIC?
When considering whether to save an unsafe building, the ARB must determine if the structure “contributes” to the city’s historic district.
According to the ordinance, a “contributing” structure is defined as one that “adds to or is consistent with the historic or architectural qualities, historic associations, or values” for which the district was established, because it:
- Was present during the period of significance.
- Relates to the documented significance of the district.
- And possesses historic integrity or is capable of yielding important information about the period.
If a structure does not meet all of those requirements, permission to raze should be granted.
The intent in designating a structure as “unsafe” is that once a building deteriorates enough, it needs to be acted on quickly, said Walsh.
“If I say it’s a hazard and can justify that and order it demolished, that’s the express lane to it going away,” Walsh said.
REVIEW IS KEY
In April, the city and the nonprofit Historic Fredericksburg Foundation agreed to be more active about identifying threatened properties and preserving them before they’re in crisis.
City Manager Beverly Cameron also designated $100,000 in the upcoming budget for historic preservation and blight abatement.
With the new ordinance in place and an improved relationship between the city and HFFI, officials hope to preserve more historic buildings and avoid the kind of commotion raised over the Caroline Street home.
“We think it’s a positive step,” said Sean Maroney, the executive director of HFFI.
“The idea is to make sure we don’t lose historic buildings without review, in the past like 1407 Caroline,” he said. “We don’t want that kind of thing happening again. We want to preserve everything we can.”
PLAYING IT SAFE
The city code defines an unsafe structure as one that:
Is determined by the code official to be dangerous to the health, safety and welfare of the occupants of the structure or the public.
Contains unsafe equipment.
Or is so damaged, decayed, dilapidated, structurally unsafe or of such faulty construction or unstable foundation that partial or complete collapse is likely. A vacant existing structure unsecured or open shall be deemed to be an unsafe structure.
Under the city’s new ordinance, if a structure is declared unsafe but the Architectural Review Board also feels it contributes to the historical nature of downtown, it likely wouldn’t be demolished unless John Walsh, the city’s property maintenance code official, determines that the building is a hazard.
Because “hazard” isn’t defined in the code, Webster’s dictionary is used. But Walsh added that the finding is subjective.
Walsh said he considers a building an imminent threat if it’s likely to collapse or if it can’t be reasonably secured and those entering the structure would face danger.
Robyn Sidersky 540/374-5413