Town commissioners are being asked to consider ways to strengthen rules that protect the Swansboro Historic District.
A threat to the town’s district, much of which is recognized by the National Register of Historic Places, has emerged over the years. The threat is the demolition of historic structures. As homes are lost to demolition, the district is at risk of being downgraded by the National Register, and that could affect all the owners of historic structures.
In a joint meeting of the Swansboro Board of Commissioners and the Swansboro Historic Preservation Commission on Sept. 21, town officials discussed ways to encourage and ensure renovation over demolition.
Mayor John Davis opened the meeting, which took place virtually utilizing the Zoom platform.
Davis said he had been in contact with Patrick Larkin, chairman of the Swansboro Historic Preservation Commission, about considering changes to the town’s Unified Development Ordinance that could provide protections to historic structures.
“I thought there was an agreement on some urgency,” Davis said.
Davis mentioned that he had also been on contact with John Wood, preservation and restoration specialist with the State Historic Preservation Office.
“There is some action that we can take to help,” Davis said. He said enforcement could be improved, and action is needed. “In the last three years we have lost two structures, and that hurts.”
Wood, who joined the virtual meeting, said that the town could consider enacting an ordinance that limits “demolition by neglect.”
“Demolition by neglect (is) one of tools that can be used,” Wood said.
For example, the owner of a historic home might allow the building the simply deteriorate to the point that it cannot be saved. It is a method that has been employed by some property owners who prefer to replace or remove rather than renovate. Swansboro could consider an ordinance that would force the homeowner to maintain the structure.
On a question from Commissioner Frank Tursi, Wood said that as historic structures are lost in the district, owners of historic homes in the district run the risk of losing a financial incentive, a tax break for restoration costs.
Specifically, Wood said when the district gets down to 60 to 70 percent of historic structures, “It starts to get a little dicey, if you are in a historic district.”
In Swansboro, there are two designations, the National Register as well as a locally designated historic district, according to Wood. Within the districts are contributing structures and non-contributing – but historic – structures. With the loss of these structures, the loss of status is a possibility.
“We’ve seen that happen to historic districts across the state,” Wood said of the downgrade. “Even when they have a preservation commission.” For now, the town’s district looks stable, he added. “In riding around Swansboro I didn’t see many neglected properties.”
But he also said the town should take steps to protect what is there.
“Education is one of the things that’s going to help turn the tide,” Wood continued. But, if there is a threat of loss of structures, the town should consider enacting a demolition-by-neglect ordinance. And, he added at that point, enforcement is key.
“If you lose the integrity of one building, it’s bad for that building, but its also bad for the overall district,” Wood said. Demolition by neglect could “set the bar,” and show that the town is serious about saving structures. It would, he added, “Make people aware that preservation is important.”
Kim Kingrey, a member of the preservation commission, said she believed the existing ordinances need better enforcement.
“We all know it, there is no enforcement,” she said. “How do we get from where we are right now to a better place, where we can fix these problems?”
Joan Deaton, a member of the preservation commission, said personnel is the answer.
“We have so many people wearing so many hats,” she said of town staff. One person needs to be aware of what is happening in the district. “We need somebody, even if it is a part-time position.” Deaton referred to it as a budget problem. “I have seen changes (in the district) and have seen a lot of (replacement) houses and I don’t know how they got put in here, but they did.”
Commissioner P.J. Puglies asked Chris Seaberg, town manager, who watches over the district. “Help us understand, what is the town’s role in this?” he asked.
Seaberg said the planning staff provides oversight and enforcement.
“We get complaints, we act on every complaint we receive,” said Seaberg, who worked his last day for Swansboro on Oct. 7. But, Seaberg added, there is not time for staff to go out looking for violations.
A planning technician – a position for which Seaberg has advocated but has not been fully funded – could help. “That position could easily focus more on enforcement,” Seaberg said.
Tursi asked Wood: “Is the town’s historic district imminently threatened?”
In response, Wood said he would rather wait for the completion of an architectural survey of the district that will be undertaken to answer that. But, he added, “It has been on our radar. We need definitive numbers.”
Swansboro is not the “worst of the worst,” Wood said. But he also said he doesn’t want the current trend of replacements to continue.
Commissioner Larry Philpott asked Wood: “Are there other properties in towns that could be added to the district?”
Wood said the town could consider expanding the locally designated district.
Commissioner Laurent Meilleur, said he understands the concern. And, he added, staff stability would help in terms of enforcement.
“We don’t want to wait until the sky is falling,” Deaton said. “We want to something ahead of time … before the sky falls. I would encourage the commissioners to consider this when you are looking at your budgets.”
Ben Parker, a member of the preservation commission, said there needs to be some strength in the town rules.
“The commission doesn’t have enforcement mechanics … other than to cooperate with a homeowner,” he explained. “The commissioners need to be aware of that. We can educate all we want … but we do run the risk to losing more properties.
Davis, at the Oct. 25 regular meeting of the board of commissioners, suggested taking up the demolition-by-neglect ordinance this month.
Email Jimmy Williams at jimmy at tidelandnews.com.
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