Cash for history?
June 12, 2009 · Updated 9:28 AM
Drive to preserve island history will focus on incentives for owners.
Preserving a historic home can be a labor of love. It can also burn a hole in your wallet.
That has become painstakingly clear to islander Bruce Brunton, who has poured tens of thousands of dollars into the historic house he owns at 216 Ericksen Ave.
Brunton bought the house in 1979, since then the price of maintaining the historic structure has been rising, along with the value of his property. He is now pursuing plans to relocate or demolish the building to make way for a mixed-use commercial and residential complex.
The project is part of Brunton and his wife’s retirement plan, but it is also the center of an ongoing and evolving debate over how the city can preserve historic buildings, while at the same time respecting property rights.
Last month, the house on 216 Ericksen Ave. was placed on the 2009 endangered historic properties list complied by the Washington Trust for Historical Preservation.
The house, constructed in 1903, is one of six remaining buildings on Ericksen that were built as homes for workers of the Hall Brothers Shipyard in Winslow; timbers from the shipyard were also used in the home’s construction.
Preservation advocates believe the house should be saved as implied in the Historic Preservation Program which is part of the city’s comprehensive plan.
However, there are no regulations in the comprehensive plan that mandate historic preservation in the Ericksen Overlay District. The city’s legal counsel has advised that there is no justification based in law for stopping the building’s demolition based on its history.
More importantly to Brunton, those who argue to save the home fail to take into account the ongoing costs associated with maintaining the building, and his right to redevelop his property.
“I have heard from a lot of people who are opposed to my project,” he said. “I haven’t heard anyone giving many options or alternatives.”
Since the proposed building designs have gone to the city, Brunton has spent close to $30,000 for a site plan review, an architect and legal counsel.
The ordeal of 216 Ericksen has put more pressure on the city to address its lack of regulation and appease property owners.
“This is private property and we need to recognize that individuals who own historic properties also have a cost involved in maintaining them,” said council member Debbie Vancil. “I think incentives are a positive way to encourage people to be able to protect something that is of value to the whole community. It should not rely simply on the good will of any one property owner.”
The city’s Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) seems to agree, and has recently completed a list of recommendations to incentivize historic preservation.
Jim McNett, a member of HPC, is on the sub-committee looking at incentives.
“We all know that the current ordinance now is not working,” McNett said. “These laws were all written a long time ago, and now land on Bainbridge is a lot more valuable than it was even 20 years ago. If you have an option to get a couple million dollars or save a building, your average Joe won’t save the building.”
The HPC has proposed changes to the Historic Preservation Program that would dangle a carrot in front of would-be developers.
The proposals being offered by the HPC include adding an “H” zoning attachment to historic buildings and their associated parcels. The “H” designation would increase density and provide flexible code interpretations for new additions.
The HPC would also like to see a graduated system of property tax exemption that would lead to a full property tax exemption for buildings over 100 years old.
Also proposed is a two-year waiting period for demolition permits for properties listed on the Local Register of historic homes.
There are also proposals to integrate historic preservation with the park district and create a special designation for local landmarks that would have to be approved by the city council.
“All across the U.S., people are reevaluating the laws and ordinances because we live in a new era now,” McNett said. “What we’re trying to do is look at the island as a giant historic district instead of having it apply in finite places.”
City Planning Director Kathy Cook said many of the proposed incentives would have to undergo legal scrutiny before the draft ordinance moves forward for public comment at the Planning Commission.
Proposed incentives are not likely to change the fate of the 216 Ericksen house.
Cook will likely make a final decision next week to approve or deny Brunton’s proposed plans for the site, while Brunton is still mulling what to do with the house.
He is looking at salvage options and said there are interested parties who may take up his standing offer to hand over the house to anyone interested in relocating it.
“Besides, if I just ground it up into little bits I’d be in trouble with my spouse,” Brunton said.