Beaufort home damaged in fire targeted for demolition

emoody@beaufortgazette.comDecember 9, 2013 

A Newcastle Street house, neglected since it was badly damaged in a fire a year ago, could be designated for demolition by the city of Beaufort.

The city's planning staff is requesting the building be condemned and torn down. A public hearing and vote by City Council is planned for Tuesday.

"The property owner is having difficulty in obtaining insurance funds to have the building demolished," city planner Libby Anderson wrote in a staff memo. "In the meantime, the property continues to deteriorate. ... The structure has become a blight on the neighborhood."

Three adults and seven children who lived at the 814 Newcastle St. home escaped unharmed when it caught fire early Dec. 30, 2012. A dog died in the fire.

Investigators believe the fire started when a tree limb fell across power lines to the home, knocking out power. The homeowner tried to reset the breaker and later saw smoke coming from the wall behind the electrical panel, according to the Beaufort/Port Royal Fire Department.

Beaufort County records indicate the 1,300-square-foot house belongs to Estella Smalls, who purchased it in 2005 for $98,000. The property is currently assessed at $113,300.

The Historic District Review Board approved demolition in July.

Neighbor Frank Wynia supports the demolition. The insurance company has done nothing to protect the house from water damage, and "mold, rats, bugs and every other creature are living there, creating a health hazard," he said.

Wynia said he is struggling to sell his home because of the deteriorating property next door.

If approved by City Council, the property owner would have to apply for a demolition permit within 15 days and knock it down within 30 days. If not, the city would demolish it and put a lien on the property to recoup costs.

Special-projects planner Lauren Kelly said Smalls is unavailable, but the city has been working with her husband. Insurance and power-of-attorney issues have held up the process, she said.

Smalls' husband, Anthony Johnson, said his wife has been in prison since 2011 after pleading guilty to charges related to creating counterfeit checks, according to Beaufort County jail and court records. She had to write him a letter granting him permission to deal with the house. He said he wants it torn down because it isn't safe.

He doesn't want to pay for the demolition because he doesn't own the house and thinks the insurance company should cover the cost. Johnson said he hopes to build a new home on the lot.

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