Pierceville protection eyed

Published 1:57 pm Wednesday, December 9, 2015

By Debbie Cohen

Staff writer

The Smithfield Town Council voted Dec. 1 to send the Pierceville house to the Board of Historic and Architectural Review (BHAR) for further action and to initiate the town’s “demolition by neglect” process.

The circa 1730 Dutch-roofed home is part of a proposed 151 single-family home development on the adjoining 58 acres off Main and Cary streets. 

Because Pierceville is designated a “landmark” house located in the town’s historic district, it must be adequately maintained under the town’s historic ordinance. The BHAR reviews proposed changes to properties in the historic district.

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Councilman Milton Cook said the Pierceville house and barns are a health and safety issue.{mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

“If the demolition by neglect process is approved by BHAR, then the owner will have 90 days to respond to this notice, and if approved, the demolition can take up to one year to enforce. This property is deteriorating daily and something has to be done,” Cook said.

The town’s historic district ordinance gives the town the authority to protect certain historically valuable buildings. The ‘demolition by neglect’ process can take up to a year and begins with BHAR requesting action. It would eventually require a court order before the town could step in to save the building.

The ordinance is used to keep homes from being demolished, so it does not typically end in the destruction of the house, said William Saunders, planning and zoning administrator for the town of Smithfield.

The process could eventually end in a lien being placed against the property, or in a hardship case, paid for by the town from a fund established for that purpose, according to the ordinance.

Several years ago, the town of Smithfield wanted the owner, Mary Delk Crocker, to bring the deteriorating house up to code. The issue was eventually passed off to the Isle of Wight County Building Codes Appeals Board, which gave Crocker six months to begin renovations. Crocker opted not to begin repairs and instead put the house up for sale last year for $2 million.

The property attracted the attention of Hearndon MC Builders LLC, which has proposed a single-family home development called Cary & Main.

The developer has offered to stabilize the Pierceville house if the rezoning is approved, and plans to work with the town to find a suitable person or organization to restore the structure. If the town council rejects the rezoning, however, council members said the town would mothball the house in the hope that someone would eventually restore it.

Smithfield’s ordinance, passed in 1979, was the first in Virginia to include the concept known as “destruction by neglect.” It holds that the owner of a landmark-designated building cannot allow it to be destroyed by neglect.

The ordinance got its first test in 1982 when the town decided to file an injunction in Isle of Wight County Circuit Court against Dr. Rea Parker, who, according to the town, was allowing his home to deteriorate by neglect.

Parker owned the house located at the corner of Mason and Main streets.

Parker challenged the town’s authority to require maintenance by alleging that the town ordinance overstepped the authority granted by the General Assembly, and thus was unconstitutional. However, Circuit Court Judge James C. Godwin Jr. ruled in 1983 that the ordinance was constitutional and thus enforceable.

Smithfield’s ordinance was the first in Virginia to include the concept known as “destruction by neglect.” It holds that the owner of a landmark-designated building cannot allow it to be destroyed by neglect.

In 1985, the court ordered Parker to paint the building and make other repairs to prevent its future deterioration.

Ironically, the town again pursued the owner of the Parker house in 2006 — this time owned by Jeffrey Stark. The house had sustained damage to its dormers and chimney during Hurricane Isabel in 2003.

When the town finally took the case to court, Stark began making the repairs.

The town took similar action against Cheryl and Gary Combs, who owned a Victorian house on Mason Street. The Combs’ eventually sold the house, and the owners have since restored the building. {/mprestriction}