Preservation or manipulation?

How would you like to be cross-examined by the government for wanting to renovate your house?

In Hendersonville, N.C., this isn’t merely a possibility; it’s a fact. That’s right: The government, under the guise of “historic preservation,” can now force a homeowner to meet its interpretation of aesthetics. Your home may be a mere 30 years old, but if it sits within a declared — as in not-voted-on — local historic district, you are subject to the mandates of the Hendersonville Historic Preservation Commission, consisting of five non-elected commissioners and a city attorney. This board decides what is aesthetically correct for your home. And yes, if you persist in exercising your right to renovate your home in a way that is both cost-efficient and that suits your own taste, you can be cross-examined — under oath!

I was asked to be cross-examined by the HPC after I insisted on immediate protection for a house I was buying for me and my wife. At the time, the roof was leaking throughout the house, and I made arrangements to have a roof installed as soon as I closed on the property. The contractor told me no permit was needed. (This was two months before the HPC took control.) Due to a delay in closing, however, my investor insisted that the owner have the roof put on to protect the house. The owner, Patricia Kislevitz, gave me permission to have it done. At this point, I was informed that the HPC had control over zoning and that I must appear before the commission.

Our request for a roof was rejected, and HPC Chairman Parsons said, “Put a tarp over the house until you can comply with what the commission deems aesthetically proper.” I told him that his tarp suggestion wasn’t practical and that the house needed immediate protection from further damage. My investor, Walter Sheppard, told them that whatever they decided, something must be done very soon.

Approximately one week later, I received a call from Commission Coordinator Susan Anne Cox. She stated that I was to fill out more forms and appear before the commission again at a later date.

“What if we ignored the HPC, took off the old roof, and dried it in with tarpaper to prevent further damage?” I asked.

She replied that the HPC could fine me and make me remove the tarpaper. Ms. Cox went on to say that I had their permission to put a tarp over the entire house for up to three months. After that conversation, I received a letter signed by staff attorney Michael Egan instructing me to appear and be cross-examined by the commission. Consequently, my investor became reluctant, and we both agreed the damage was getting worse with each rain. We were forced to back out of the contract.

The seller has since hired Asheville attorney Craig Justus (at $180 per hour). He attended only one meeting. This time, Parsons made no mention of a tarp, and the attorney was given immediate permission to have the house protected. Although the city denies having turned down my request to protect the house, I feel that the opposition I encountered constitutes a refusal. I am hoping to find an attorney to take the case.

I’m a free-lance writer, and I had this story ready for publication when, coincidentally — or was I prying too much? — a Jan. 5 Times-News editorial revealed some of the things I had intended to expose. But their attempt at conveying truth was done in the very best politician-speak. So let’s take a look at what they were really saying.

Being on the National Register of Historic Places is prestigious. And the editorial states that “this would place no additional restriction on your property.” This much is correct. But why was Druid Hills placed under the HPC’s restrictive zoning before it appeared on the National Register? And why has Hyman Heights been under HPC jurisdiction since 1997, even though it’s still not on the National Register?

The Times editorial states, “The fear that a National Register listing automatically means a neighborhood will become a local historic district is understandable. This fear is justified: You lose your basic property rights under the HPC. And here is where the editorial gets murky. It states, “To get a national listing, cities must conduct research on the development of a neighborhood and prepare a draft nomination.” This contradicts a document from the National Register, which says that “state nomination forms can be prepared by private individuals.” Other cities manage to have historic districts without creating a local HPC with stringent overlapping zoning.

According to Heather Cushman of the National Register of Historic Places, “It is not a requirement for the local government to take control of any property before or after listing on the National Register.” Did you ever see that statement in print before?

I knocked on doors in the Hyman Heights district and asked, “Is your home on the National Register?” The majority said they believed their homes were. Since 1997, the HPC has been in control of their property, under misleading circumstances. The Times stated that Hyman Heights would be on the register any day now. Of course it will, because the city was caught with its pants down.

The city now wants to put the west side under HPC control. Unlike Hyman Heights, this covert attack by the HPC has received publicity, causing a lot of resistance by property owners. Laurel Park Councilman Jim Dore, according to a Times-News article, is collecting signatures on a petition opposing the HPC takeover. As Councilman Dore put it, the city has done a poor job of communicating its plans. He went on to say that many west-side residents had heard nothing about the proposed historic district until recently.

Maybe you’re wondering how the HPC can gain control of an area? A few neighbors get together (prompted, most likely, by a politician); each, of course, has his or her own opinion as to what is aesthetically correct. I asked Judy Nicholson, who helped spearhead HPC zoning for Druid Hills, “Why do you favor HPC zoning? What do you get out of it?” Her answer was, “To keep out commercialism and riffraff.” She was also opposed to the style of roof I had selected for the house I had under contract. She said, “I would rather you replace the tiles.” But this was cost-prohibitive for me.

Nicholson was also present when the commission subsequently turned down my request for a roof. She wrote a letter to the editor implying that I hadn’t been cooperative at the meeting. This is not true — my cooperation ended a week later, when Cox told me to fill out more forms, tarp the house, and attend more meetings.

The house I had under contract was owned by a renowned Hendersonville High School principal, Leslie Singley, who ran a commercial machine shop out of his basement. The HPC wants to protect the historical significance of his house, but in doing so, they deny others the same property rights he enjoyed.

In a Times-News article about the proposed HPC takeover of the west side, attorney Egan stated the key question: “Do you trust your city government, or do you trust your city government?” I wonder how the man who attended the same meeting I did and stood before the HPC, begging for permission to replace his old sash windows, would answer that?

Update: On Jan. 18, 2001, the HPC held a meeting and it seems the sneak attack for control of the west side has temporarily been thwarted. Chairman Parsons announced at the meeting that a local district will not be pursued unless residents initiate it. This translates to doublespeak, however, because the neighborhood busybodies are still pursuing control by cackling over back fences — and the bureaucrats are listening. Also, Steven White has a contract on the house I was duped out of. He was given permission for a metal roof just like the one I was denied. Coincidentally, he is related to Parsons’ neighbor.

[Bob Collins is a free-lance writer whose work has appeared in many national publications. His pen name is Radical Bob.]

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