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Ordinance could protect historic homes

A leaking roof, broken window or missing door on a historic structure could cause damage that is expensive or impossible to fix, leading to a property owner’s decision to tear the building down rather than spend money repairing it.

The Coupeville Town Council is hoping a new ordinance will reduce the chance that the second-oldest town in Washington will lose more of its historic buildings to “demolition by neglect.”

Current town code does not prevent the owner of a historic building from allowing it to fall victim to the ravages of weather and lack of maintenance. The ordinance to be considered soon would require historic structures be maintained to prevent deterioration.

It also would allow a building inspector right of entry at least once a year to inspect a historic structure, with either the consent of the property owner or a written warrant. If significant problems are found, the owner would be required to make repairs. If the owner failed to do so, the town could choose to fix the problems and assess the owner a financial penalty.

That scenario would be a last resort, town planner Larry Kwarsick said.

“We want to do this in a way to encourage appropriate action and not seem punitive,” he said, adding that crafting the ordinance will be a challenge.

Other communities have taken a variety of approaches to address the issue. For example, the town could initiate the maintenance or repair and add the cost to the owner’s property-tax bill, like any other tax lien.

The risk, however, is that the property owner might not pay. If the property goes into default, the town could get stuck with a neglected historic structure that costs a lot to maintain – and that no one wants to buy due to concern over strict government rules regarding that maintenance.

“It is not the intention or desire of the town for this to happen,” Kwarsick said.

The town has had procedures and standards in place to protect historically significant properties from demolition, but they haven’t always been effective.

In 2008, for example, the historic Vaughn house, built in 1910, was demolished to make room for a new house. The board then in place to review demolition applications – the Coupeville Design Review Board – approved the demolition because restoring the historic building would have been too costly.

Town code at the time also included penalties for instances in which a historic property had been inappropriately demolished, whether through action or neglect.

The town’s recent adoption of the Unified Design Review Guidelines for Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve – guidelines for review of projects within the Reserve that also were adopted by Island County – left out any reference to “demolition by neglect” and set the stage for the town to develop a new ordinance aimed at requiring people to maintain their historic structures.

Concern over the possible loss of the 150-year-old Libbey House on North Main Street prompted the town to take action, Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard said. Owner Ted Clifton applied for a demolition permit in 2009, saying the required repairs would be too expensive and that the building was too fragile to be moved. Without a proper foundation, the structure had deteriorated.

Conard said that what many people consider property neglect would be far outside the scope of the proposed ordinance. For example, failing to keep a lawn mowed or leaving a building unoccupied would not qualify as demolition by neglect.

“Most of what people are concerned about as neglect, isn’t,” Conard said.

Examples of demolition by neglect include failure to make repairs following a fire, or allowing a leaking roof to go unrepaired.

Conard suggested that instead of establishing an ordinance, the council consider evaluating each incidence of neglect of a historic structure a case-by-case basis, as such situations happen only infrequently.

One good option for the owners of historic properties is to seek a matching grant from the Ebey’s Forever Fund to help pay for repairs, Kwarsick said. The grant program helps the owners of historic buildings pay for repairs and maintenance.

Coupeville Councilman Larry Cort said he would be willing to participate in a voluntary program to guarantee proper maintenance of his own historic home here in Coupeville.

“I think a lot of folks – I could be wrong – have a certain amount of pride and would agree to a minimum amount of maintenance voluntarily,” Cort said.

The council will continue reviewing the ordinance, and eventually will invite town residents to comment on it at a public hearing.

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