When Claudia and Don Pleasants requested permission from the city of Beaufort to tear down a Ribaut Road home that was estimated to be 102 years old, the city said, "No." The city's denial of such a request, however, doesn't actually prevent the home's demolition; it only delays it six months.
Under city regulations, the Historic District Review Board can prohibit demolition of a historic structure only if it lies within the city's National Landmark Historic District. For other historic structures, a six-month stay of demolition is the extent of the board's power. The board reviews demolition applications for any structure that was identified as historic by the Beaufort County Historic Sites Survey completed in 1997.
The story of the Pleasants' home turned out to have a happy ending: The Pleasants donated the home, Shadow Dawn, to Historic Beaufort Foundation, and local businessman John Keith moved it to Port Royal this week. But many historic homes -- about six during the past five to 10 years, according to Beaufort historic planner Donna Alley -- have been lost because the review board was powerless to stop their demolition.
"All over the U.S. right now, there's an epidemic of tear-downs that involve houses not in protected historic districts," Alley said. "Homes from the 1920s, '30s or '40s -- smaller houses, generally, but in very good neighborhoods and on very large lots -- people are tearing them down (to replace with) very large houses. And more and more communities are trying to figure out what to do about it."
Some cities, including Greenville and Charleston, have given municipal boards the authority to prohibit demolition of historic structures that are not within a designated historic district. The idea of giving Beaufort's Historic District Review Board similar powers to prohibit demolitions has gained traction among members of the City Council.
"What (Gen. William T.) Sherman didn't do, I think we're trying to do -- destroy some of the historic buildings we have," said Councilman Gary Fordham. "I think that (the board's) powers need to be broadened outside the traditional Historic (District)."
Though several council members said they would need to do further research, Mike Sutton was the only member of the five-person council who was not in favor of expanding the Historic District Review Board's powers.
"Knowingly living in the Historic District comes with a price ... but these little homes scattered throughout the city that are on (the Beaufort County Historic Sites Survey) are in neighborhoods where the neighbors may not contribute to (the home's) value," he said. "If I own a small rental that someone deemed historic, what you see is what you get ... but you could build a Frank Lloyd Wright house right next to me or a glass house or a domed house."
Though he recognized that imposing restrictions on owners of historic structures could affect property values, Mayor Bill Rauch said he thought owners would be able to work around those restrictions.
"Historic buildings have great value even though in some cases they may not be in great shape, and once you know you have to work around it, you find ways," he said. "We have builders, in particular in Beaufort, who are good enough and sophisticated enough and resourceful enough to find ways to work around those kinds of problems and still get their projects done."
Beaufort staff members are working with Atlanta-based consultant Lord, Aeck & Sargent to draw up a new historic preservation plan for the city, which is expected to be completed in February. That plan may include a recommendation to establish an additional historic district or districts, Alley said.
The city has the authority to establish local historic districts, which would not have national landmark status. Alley said the Ribaut Road corridor, the Pigeon Point neighborhood, Depot Road and North Street are possible locations for new historic districts.
The Historic District Review Board could then be given expanded powers in those neighborhoods while continuing to restrict its powers in other parts of the city. City Council members said they were open to that type of solution.