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How to create a future for the past

Earlier this month, a landing craft brought a bulldozer to Treasure Island in Port Madison, where it demolished two of three 1920s-era log structures on the tiny islet to make way for a new residence.

The island’s new owner, though, wouldn’t destroy the principal structure, an 850-square-foot log cabin. Instead, he took it apart piece by piece, hoping that at least some of it could be salvaged.

“That was a two-week process, and I took the time off work to do it,” said Darrin Erdahl of Redmond, who plans to build a new home on the 1.6-acre island.

For the past year, developer Jim Laughlin has been trying to give away the red 1892 Hoskinson/Pratt house on the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and Wyatt Way to make room for a mixed-use project.

With no takers, that dwelling also appears destined for demolition.

The removal of the old to make way for the new doesn’t sit well with some islanders.

“More of our historic buildings are being bulldozed every day,” says Joanne Hockaday of Port Madison. “We need to decide whether we’re going to be as concerned about our past as about our future.”

In an effort to slow what some see as the needless discarding of the island’s past, the Bainbridge Island City Council is considering a preservationist-backed ordinance that would create an island-wide Historic Commission and a program “for identifying, evaluating and protecting historic resources within the city.”

Under the ordinance – now in committee – anyone could nominate a “building, structure, site or object,” whether publicly or privately owned, for inclusion on the list with permission of the owner.

If the citizen commission agrees that the property is not only relatively old – at least 50 years, except for younger sites of “exceptional importance” – and that it possesses any of a dozen specified criteria relating to the structure, its inhabitants, its archeological potential or its association with important events, it can place the property on a community Historic Register.

Placement on the registry would have two important consequences.

First, it could make the property eligible for a tax break under which an owner who does substantial rehabilitation of a historic structure in a manner that preserves its integrity need not pay taxes on the enhanced value for 10 years.

“This is an incentive to assist people in rehabilitating historic properties,” said David Thorne, an island resident and Seattle attorney who drafted the ordinance. “It has been in state law for 10 years.”

Second, the property owner could no longer alter or demolish the structure at will. Demolition, or changes in the structure other than emergency repairs and normal maintenance, would require approval from the commission.

While the owner must consent to nomination – and while the ordinance says that consent must be given only after the owner has been told about “the practical and legal effects of nominating or designating the property for listing on the register – consent once given is irrevocable.

The owner couldn’t change his or her mind, nor could a subsequent owner.

A property could be removed from the register only by the commission itself, and then only if the property is determined to no longer possess the qualities that suited it for original placement on the registry.

longer possess the qualities that suited it for original placement on the registry.

“This is a pretty voluntary-based ordinance instead of mandatory,” said Megan Duval, who is the certified local government coordinator for the state Office of Historic Preservation in Olympia. “And it’s not unfair to someone who buys the property, because they have full knowledge of the fact that it’s a listed structure when they buy.”

Duval said some 40 Washington communities have historic-preservation ordinances, all of which call for commission review of alterations or demolition of historic structures.

Some, like the Seattle ordinance, permit structures to be nominated over the objections of the owner.

Hockaday would like to see the ordinance expanded to make designation of a whole historic neighborhood possible, thinking specifically of Port Madison, the first area of non-native settlement on the island.

“That district idea scared some people, so they took it out,” she said. “But we need to begin talking about this before we can get anywhere.”

Local historian Gerry Elfendahl said he is not specifically familiar with the proposed preservation ordinance, but believes the Treasure Island cabins could have qualified as historic because they were built for Luke May, a world-famous criminologist who pioneered many of the scientific forensic crime-solving techniques celebrated in currently popular television programs.

Additionally, Elfendahl said, the island may well have important archeological sites.

“It was called Dead Man’s Island, and was the main burial place for the Suquamish. The settlers also used it as a burial ground until Kane Cemetery was built and erosion became a problem, and they had to disinter the bodies and re-bury them.”

Elfendahl says the city should have required an archeological survey before giving Erdahl a building permit.

He also lambastes the new owner for not advertising the availability of the cabin to islanders.

“The guy who built it for May was the Stradivarius of log-cabin builders,” he said. “Erdahl would have had a bidding war right there on the beach – people would have paid him dearly for the right to preserve and restore that cabin.”

Not so, Erdahl said.

“I contacted a number of businesses that try to salvage material from old buildings, and they all said the cost of barging the cabin off the island was too high,” he said.

Erdahl estimated his own barging bills as between $15,000 and $20,000.

Erdahl said he did not believe the structure could have been saved intact.

“I think maybe 80 percent of it was usable, but there was a lot of dry rot in the foundation wood,” he said. “To suggest that people would have thrown money at me to save it is laughable.”

Laughlin says the same thing of the red house at Wyatt and Madison.

“I have been working for a year to find some way to save the house,” he said. “I ran ads in the Review, and talked to every source I could think of, and nobody can overcome the moving costs.”

The problem, Laughlin said, is the cost of temporarily relocating utility lines, which must be moved out of the way along the route of any building being moved.

“It would cost $3,000 just to get the house off the lot and onto Madison,” Laughlin said.

That cost precludes anything other than a short-distance move, he said. But the sky-high land costs in the Winslow core – zoned for high densities, the reason the home is in the way of development in the first place – makes that option unattractive.

“The house is historic, but that’s all it has going for it,” Laughlin said.

“You couldn’t just set it up and have a livable home without a lot of work, and even then, you could only get maybe 1,200 square feet out of it.”

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