Save this house

Published 1:19 pm Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Review panel opposes owner’s bid to raze Pierceville

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

After numerous impassioned pleas from history lovers, the Smithfield Board of Historic and Architectural Review unanimously denied a request Feb. 21 to demolish the circa 1730 Pierceville house and outbuildings.

Because the application concerns a historic landmark house located within the town’s historic district, it automatically moves on to the Smithfield Town Council for consideration on Tuesday, April 4.  

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“This farm was there before the town … we’re talking about demolishing the oldest house in the town,” said Lee Duncan, who brought a piece of metal roofing to demonstrate how he would be able to cover the house to keep out moisture.{mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

County tourism employee and Finley’s General Store owner Cheryl Ketcham said she had been willing to take up a one-time offer of the house and a half-acre for free and pay $34,000 an acre for five acres. Her plan was to locate her store, now open on Main Street, in the currently dilapidated house and have a farm area with cows and sheep because many children don’t know what a cow looks like.

The owners declined, said the property was worth more and eventually, “I gave up,” said Ketcham.

The 58-acre farm has been on the market for $2 million since 2014. Last year, Pierceville property owner Mary Delk Crocker’s attorney, Archer Jones, had offered the town the house and the half-acre it sat on for free in lieu of making repairs. The offer was rejected. In 2015, the property was eyed for a housing development, but those plans fell through after intense public opposition.

Mark Gay, who heads up the recently formed non-profit Preserve Smithfield, said his group is still pursuing the idea of an organic farm, but needs $500,000 before the Trust for Public Land can proceed. Last year, Gay reported to the Town Council that the Trust would not proceed unless the town put up some cash.

The Trust for Public Land is a non-profit based in San Francisco that works “to create parks and protect land for people,” according to its website, largely helping to raise money to purchase land for communities to use as public parks.

Others attending the BHAR meeting called the house and outbuildings a “national treasure,” pointing out that “there’s nothing like this in California” and that if restored, it “could be a draw similar to Windsor Castle Park.”

Historian Albert Burckard recounted the story of British Brigadier General Benedict Arnold, who set up camp in Smithfield, presumably on the Pierceville Plantation, which was owned by Thomas Pierce at the time.

Jones said his client has heard of many promises and offers, but either they were unrealistic, didn’t happen or the possibility that any of them would come to fruition was very remote.

The house has been deteriorating for years and someone would have to have a “significant amount of money” to restore it, but ultimately, “you’re talking destruction and putting it back together,” said Jones.

When it came time for Board comments, Chairman Trey Gwaltney asked, “Who dares to go first?”

Board member Gary Hess said the town has already ordered that the house be stabilized and if the owner does not have the money, then the taxpayer would have to pay for it.

Town Attorney William Riddick said that would only occur if the Town Council decided to go that route and “that’s never going to happen.”

Board member David Goodrich said the deterioration began long before 2009, when the town became involved in the house and property.

Board member Ronny Prevatte said the town needed to determine whether it wants the property restored or simply rebuilt.

Gwaltney said it would probably be a combination of both, but “you don’t do any of it after the bulldozers are gone.”

Gwaltney said that delaying demolition gives more time for an interested buyer to come along.

Prevatte had doubts about that plan.

“Are we really, realistically looking at someone coming along?” he asked.

Crocker, who is now in her 80s, was born in the house, located at 502 Grace Street. She lived there nearly her entire life until a few years ago, after being ordered to make repairs by the Isle of Wight County Building Code Appeals Board. The house has been in violation of the town’s historic ordinance for years.  

When asked after the meeting for a comment on the proceedings, Jones declined, but merely described the hearing and vote as “civics at work.”

The town’s historic preservation ordinance requires all buildings in the historic district be preserved against decay, deterioration and maintained from structural defects.  {/mprestriction}