Are demolitions really threatening the historical character of the city?

A popular point-of-view among Historic City News readers is that property owners should have the final say in what happens to the real estate they own.  When you buy real estate, you are buying a bundle of rights — everything from mineral rights underground to “air rights” above.

If you have ever purchased or sold real estate in St Augustine or St Johns County, though, you quickly get an education in what rights you don’t have; at least not automatically with the purchase and sale, as you might think.  Planning and zoning laws, according to an approved comprehensive master plan, take precedence over your individual plans to build, use, or demolish your property.

  • Ask Scott and Donna Wendler if you need a reference.  They purchased several outdated, framed buildings along the commercial corridor of King Street west of Riberia Street.  Wendler had plans from a builder to replace the aging two-story homes, that over the years were converted to multi-family rentals, with a modern boutique hotel that many say would be a welcome breath of fresh air in a stagnant, blighted part of town.

The problem, at least for Wendler, is that even though there is no historic value to the quickly dilapidating structures, they are more than 50-years-old; and, that triggers intervention by the city’s historic preservation officer, Jenny Wolfe; putting a halt to construction of the new hotel. 

The eyesores still stand despite city attorney Isabelle Lopez squandering hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars; money paid out of the city treasury and given to a private Jacksonville law firm to persecute the Wendlers.

  • In another case, the owner of 9 Aviles Street, a more than 100-year-old building that had been modified over time, had the building torn down this summer after discovering it was unstable. The owner received an “after-the-fact” certificate of demolition from the city’s Historic Architectural Review Board, in keeping with the city’s unwritten policy that it is easier to ask forgiveness than it is to ask for permission.

  • Also, this year, crews tore down Echo House, which was built in the 1920’s and had served as a nursing home for poor African-Americans who needed care at the end of their lives.  In that case, instigated by Ronald Rawls Jr, the city allowed the building to be demolished in segments over time as part of separate requests.  The building had been allowed to decay for years before Rawls’ church asked to tear it down for parking.

Historic City News has learned that St. Augustine officials are now going to take aim at building demolitions using its “Historic Preservation Master Plan” which declares demolitions are threatening the city’s historic character.  Just in the city’s Lincolnville National Register Historic District, more than 100 buildings have been demolished since 1991, according to the city.  The city has spent about $70,000 on outside consultants to accomplish the plan.  Issues remain concerning the enforceability of the conditions recommended by the plan.

In a recent published quote by Planning and Building Department Director, David Birchim, that was reported by The Record, the city says that it is also trying to come up with more financial incentives for people to stabilize and fix up their properties.

“We don’t want to just go after poor people and penalize them because they don’t have the means to keep up their houses,” Birchim said. “We are really focusing on keeping the houses and keeping folks in their houses.”

Even though preservation projects have occurred in St. Augustine, including moving houses and restoring historic properties for commercial purposes, it seems to be the demolition requests that have grabbed headlines. 

Demolition by neglect and the “after-the-fact demolition” are the most difficult applications targeted by the plan.  Wolfe has identified a need to require owners to demonstrate that they have made the effort to sell, or relocate the property, or find tenants that could help with the financial burden until another use for the building is found.

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