Owners threaten to demolish Pierceville

Published 12:36 pm Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Says town challenge has blocked sale

By Allison T. Williams

Staff writer

An Isle of Wight Circuit Court judge may end up determining the fate of Pierceville, a dilapidated circa-1730s manor house that has been in violation of the town’s historic preservation ordinances since 2009.

If necessary, Mary Delk Crocker, the property’s 84-year-old owner, will go to court to fight the town’s efforts to force her to bring her Church Street house into compliance with Smithfield’s zoning code and historic preservation overlay district ordinances, according to her lawyer, Archer L. Jones II.

“The ball is in the town’s court … and everything is on the table,” said Jones, addressing the Smithfield Town Council during last week’s committee meetings.

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“If we aren’t talking, we will end up engaged in litigation.” {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

The Town Council tabled further action for 30 days, to give town officials and Crocker’s representatives another opportunity to resolve the issue.

If an agreement isn’t brokered, Crocker will file an application with the town to demolish all buildings on the property, Jones said.

According to Jones, state code allows for the action because the property has been on the market for more than 12 months and the town’s ordinances have “limited Ms. Crocker’s ability to market the property.”

“She can’t demolish it without your permission, she can’t sell it without your permission,” Jones said. “While she appreciates that some people believe her home has historical value, Ms. Crocker … has no interest in restoring the property and no funds to maintain it.

“She is prepared to litigate,” Jones said, noting that the town — “the aggressor” — would be the party to initiate any legal proceedings.

Although it is one of the oldest properties in Smithfield, Pierceville’s historic manor house and several outbuildings have steadily deteriorated since the town’s planning department first approached Crocker about the violations.

The 58-acre farm, including the blighted manor house, is on the market for $2 million. Any new buyer would be assuming responsibility for bringing the manor house into compliance with the town’s zoning and historic ordinances.

Last year, Hearndon Construction’s proposed 151 single-family development failed after the Town Council denied changes to the town’s comprehensive plan to allow rezonings for the new subdivision. Since Hearndon, Jones said he has shown the property to two other prospective buyers.

Preserve Smithfield, a new organization that formed to oppose Herndon’s proposed subdivision, wants to purchase the property as a Colonial-era working farm. The group, a prospective non-profit organization awaiting tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service, hopes to raise money to purchase and renovate the manor house.

The town has had ongoing attempts to push Crocker to repair and maintain her property over the last eight years, beginning with a notice of violations in November 2009. Most recently, the council refused Crocker’s offer to deed the manor house and 1/2 –acre of property to the town.

“That house has been neglected for a decade,” said Councilman Milton Cooke. “It’s not the town’s responsibility.”

Jones is asking the council to repeal the Smithfield Board of Historic and Architectural Review’s December 2015 ruling that gave Crocker 90 days to bring the property into compliance before the town intervened to make the structure safe. According to town code, the town is authorized to make repairs to stabilize the house, with the costs being placed as a lien against the property owner or paid by the town, in special hardship cases.

The town’s estimate to mothball the house is approximately $75,000, said Town Manager Peter Stephenson.

Jones said his client may be willing to consider allowing the town to stabilize and mothball the house, with the stipulation that the lien will be paid from proceeds of any future sale of the property.

The review board’s December 2015 letter to Crocker noted that the ongoing disrepair constitutes “demolition by neglect.”

According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s website, “demolition by neglect … is a situation in which a property owner intentionally allows a historic property to suffer severe deterioration, potentially beyond the point of repair. Property owners may use this kind of long-term neglect to circumvent historic preservation regulations.

“Sometimes demolition by neglect occurs when an owner essentially abandons a historic property,” according to the Washington D.C.-based organization’s website. “More often, neglect is an affirmative strategy used by an owner who wants to develop the property.”

That’s not the case for Crocker, Jones said. He noted that Crocker did not put her home on the market until after Isle of Wight County’s inspections department got involved, Jones said.

“She would still be living in her home,” Jones said.

State code — which is the foundation for the town’s ordinances — does not specifically state that owners of historical properties are required to maintain them, Jones said.

“While property owners must have specific approvals from review boards to demolish, alter or amend structures, it does not impose upon a landowner to maintain it,” Jones said.

A town ordinance enacted in 1979 allows the town to protect buildings considered essential to the historic district. The policy was first put to the test in 1982, when the town filed an injunction in Isle of Wight Circuit Court against Dr. Rea Parker, who allegedly allowed his house at the corner of Main and Mason to deteriorate by neglect. In 1985, the court ordered Parker to make the necessary repairs and paint the house.

“That case may have been decided incorrectly,” Jones said, noting that the case was never appealed.

 Other owners of neglected historic properties that the town has contacted are making the necessary repairs to their properties, said Mayor Carter Williams.

For a landmark house within a historic district to be demolished, it must be approved by both the town council and BHAR.

Williams said he is hopeful Pierceville will be resolved without litigation.  {/mprestriction}