Fixing historic homes costs more than money

Owners of historic homes in Beaufort should follow city's guidelines on renovation work.

info@islandpacket.comJanuary 25, 2014 

Jeannette Neal told members of city of Beaufort's Historic District Review Board that her mother feared them. She likely felt that way because the board's rules are perceived as being so oblique and its procedures so pedantic that fixing up her house at 701 Greene St. was not worth the hassle.

Neal has now inherited the home from her mother, Ruth deTreville Richter, and seeks to renovate it. However, work on the deTreville House was temporarily halted because not all of it was properly permitted or reviewed.

Unfortunately, Neal's assertion that her mother did not wish to tangle with the review board undermines her larger argument. She said she thought a permit she had procured covered all the work that had been started on the home, but if she understood her mother's fear, she should have known calamity would ensue when she made alterations to a historic structure without explicit permission.

Ironically, fears about facing the board proved unfounded, at least in Neal's case. Not only was it sympathetic, the Historic Beaufort Foundation argues it was too compliant when it approved a compromise that allows Neal to continue some of the previously unapproved work.

The rules might be perceived as oblique and the procedures as pedantic, but they are the rules and the procedures, nonetheless. They have been followed by most seeking to repair or renovate homes in the historic district, even if doing so cost time and money.

In this particular calamity, the Historic Beaufort Foundation plays the heavy -- executive director Maxine Lutz said she plans to appeal the board's compromise.

But the organization has a point. Shouldn't the board and the people who come before it play by the rules?

None of this is to imply Neal set out to break them.

She was granted a permit in October to remove tin and wooden shakes on the roof and install a new roof, according to her application. However, it did not cover other renovations that include a roof extension, second-story porch with railing or a wraparound porch, according to city planner Lauren Kelly.

Neal justified the other work in terms that would make sense if the home were outside the historic district. After construction began, rotten wood, water damage and other problems were discovered. Most of the additional renovations were intended to fix the problems and prevent their recurrence.

Neal told the board her mother didn't make similar renovations to the home because "she was afraid of you all." Ruth deTreville Richter's daughter now fears the house will crumble if the renovations are not made.

And that would be a shame -- built in 1785, it is one of the city's oldest homes.

Because it is within the historic district, renovations must be approved by city staff or the Historic District Review Board. Such approval is a difficult balancing act for Beaufort and other communities with rules to protect historic structures.

Requirements must be brawny enough to protect historic integrity, but not so onerous as to discourage property owners from making them liveable.

A spirit of compromise on the board's part is commendable, and we hope that in the end, Neal and her family can live comfortably in the historic home.

Nonetheless, the Jan. 17 decision should not be that end, for we share Lutz's concern that the meeting and vote did not follow proper procedures and not all guidelines for historic renovation were considered.

Board member Mike Rainey was absent from the meeting, which took place at the house. Michelle Knoll attended for a while but left before the vote, under the impression no action would be taken. The members present then voted 3-0 to halt some work but allow other work to continue.

This compromise must at least be revisited, in fairness to all those in the past who might have disagreed with the rules but followed them, anyway.

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