Beaufort News

Historic review board nixes automatic demolition of buildings damaged by acts of nature

Owners of this home on Prince Street were recently granted permission to demolish it after a lightning strike sparked a fire that destroyed more than half of the structure.
Owners of this home on Prince Street were recently granted permission to demolish it after a lightning strike sparked a fire that destroyed more than half of the structure. Staff photo

Suzie Parker Devoe wasn't home when the lightning struck. She didn't see the sparks that flew in the 90-year-old home in The Point or smell the smoke from the fire that smoldered for hours before breaking through the roof.

As a matter of fact, Devoe hadn't even moved into her newly purchased home.

Devoe and her husband brought the property at 505 Prince St. less than two weeks before the June 19 fire.

The subsequent request by the Devoes' to demolish the structure and rebuild sparked a conversation among city officials about whether the Historic District Review Board must review and approve demolitions when caused by acts of nature.

On Wednesday, the couple was granted permission to demolish the structure, half to three-quarters of which was destroyed by the fire and firefighters' efforts to put it out, according to city preservation planner Lauren Kelly.

However, the board also nixed the idea of automatically permitting demolitions whenever Mother Nature damages a certain percentage of a building.

Kelly posed the idea as a means of speeding the recovery for property owners, who might have to wait as long as a month for the board to grant approval at its next meeting.

Board vice chairman Bill Chambers said the members are accommodating and willing to schedule special meetings if a decision is needed between monthly meetings. Member Mike Rainey added that notices of demolitions should be published and decisions about them shouldn't rest in the hands of only one city staff member.

The board reviewed the Devoes' request, as it does all requests to knock down buildings in the historic district. Plans for the new home the couple will build have not been completed, but the Devoes intend to build a similarly sized building, city officials said.

Acts of nature significantly damaging historic homes in the downtown are rare, preservationists and city officials said. They could think of only a handful of similar incidents in the past several decades, causes ranging from fires to fallen trees to hurricanes.

One reason such losses are so rare, Historic Beaufort Foundation executive director Maxine Lutz said, is that so many of the historic district's older buildings have already been lost to neglect, hurricanes and a 1907 fire that ravaged much of downtown.

Local preservationist and contractor Beekman Webb applauded the board's direction.

"There are plenty of people who would probably love to knock down their houses and start over," he said. "I just think that's something that shouldn't be too quickly decided and by just anybody because we could lose a whole lot of our historic buildings."

A hurricane that damages many houses could have a particularly injurious effect if an automatic threshold were established, Webb argues -- Beaufort could lose many of its historic buildings in one fell swoop and little deliberation.

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