Preserving the Past in Crozet: No Refuge for Historic Homes

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A 111-year-old home on Blue Ridge Avenue was demolished Feb. 8 by the developer of The Vue. Photo: Mike Marshall

The Smith house stood on Blue Ridge Avenue, two blocks west of downtown Crozet, for more than 100 years. Nicknamed for the Smith family who lived there for 23 years beginning in 1984, it was built a century ago on one acre for a man named Bickers, a telegraph operator for the railroad who moved here from Bath County. The Smith house was red brick with a metal, side-gabled jerkinhead roof and a stone fire pit in the back yard. Walnut floors and high ceilings graced the main floor, along with both a front and back set of stairs and a wide, wraparound porch.

The house was listed, along with several outbuildings on the grounds, as a contributing property for the Crozet Historic District entry in the National Register of Historic Places. On February 7, the developer who owns the property received a demolition permit from the county, and within 24 hours the Smith house was a dusty pile of rubble.

Jennie More, whose ancestors were among the first to put down roots in the area and who lives across Blue Ridge Avenue from the Smith house site, wonders why the demolition had to happen. “I think about the Bargamins and Waylands, who believed in, invested in and supported Crozet, and I wonder, would they be happy with what’s happening here?”

Happy or not, what happened to the Smith house was allowed under current county rules. The house was sold in 2007 to Piedmont Housing Alliance (PHA), a local developer who provides affordable housing opportunities in area communities. PHA’s original design for the property included 72 units of mixed houses and condos, and the plan incorporated the Smith house, refurbished, as the development’s clubhouse. After the recession and accompanying housing market slowdown, PHA decided to sell the property to focus on other projects. The new owner, Pinnacle Properties, altered the plan to pack 126 units onto the parcel and sited a new clubhouse on the exact spot where the Smith house would be torn down.

Susan Spengler, Jennie More, Jean Hiatt and Judy Rasmussen with the Smith House remains. Photo: Lisa Martin

Local preservation groups swung into action. Members of Preservation Piedmont (PP), a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving historic resources in the region, set up a meeting last summer with Pinnacle’s owner, William Park. Susan Spengler, former president of PP who is also trained as a landscape architect, went to the meeting armed with alternatives to save the house.

“Mr. Park said that due to how they had to grade the slope, they would end up with an accessibility issue reaching the house,” explained Spengler, so that it would sit too high on the lot. “I brought site maps and asked about different ways to grade the site, about the possibility of having two levels in the development, even about other entrance locations that I had discussed with VDOT.” But Park was adamant that the house had to go.

Jean Hiatt, past president and current member of PP, was also in attendance and pointed out that Pinnacle had some experience in preserving historic structures. “Mr. Park has done three or four very nice projects involving adaptive reuse, so he knows how to do that,” she said.

Ultimately, Park was not persuaded. “At the end of the meeting he offered to give us the house if we could move it,” said Spengler, “but that just wasn’t possible, financially. And we had no other options.” (Mr. Park did not respond to calls to his office for comment.)

In their fight to save historic resources, preservation advocates point to one factor that hamstrings their efforts: Albemarle County has no preservation ordinance on the books. This means that, unlike the City of Charlottesville, the county has no enforceable means to protect buildings or land with historic value. Though the Crozet Historic District is listed in both the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register, those designations are honorific only. “A listing on the Register does not offer any protection of any kind, whatsoever,” said Dr. Jared Loewenstein, president of Albemarle County’s Historical Preservation Committee (HPC), a nine-member group appointed by the County Board of Supervisors to document and safeguard the county’s historic and cultural resources. “The only protection with any enforcement power is a local ordinance, and we don’t have one at this point.”

The restored Bain House in Bargamin Park. Photo: Lisa Martin

It’s not for lack of trying. Dr. Loewenstein and his colleagues have been involved in a half-dozen attempts over the last forty years to convince the county of the need for some form of preservation code. Referred to as an “overlay,” a preservation ordinance is attached to a zoning rule so that it lies above existing zoning on a parcel or area. It carries with it certain legally enforceable penalties for significantly altering or destroying historic structures.

Without an ordinance, the HPC relies on education, financial incentives, and partnerships among interest groups to try to persuade owners to preserve their property. “We’ve had a few very significant losses and it’s been sad, in a county so filled with history as Albemarle is,” said Loewenstein. “Some were demolished before anyone even knew about their importance. It’s really upsetting.”

After decades of progress by degrees, the HPC produced a comprehensive Historic Preservation Plan that was adopted by the Board of Supervisors in September of 2000. The framework encourages the creation of an overlay historic district ordinance, as well as programs for providing local incentives, educating property owners, and planning for heritage tourism, among many other specific suggestions. In the ensuing 17 years, most of the plan’s recommendations have been acted upon in one form or another, though not the ordinance.

When asked about the current status of the ordinance initiative, county staff are circumspect. Margaret Maliszewski, chief of planning for the county, said the committee is beginning some preliminary research into demolition ordinances and discussing the merits of such an ordinance for the county, with the possibility of making a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors on the topic at some point in the future.

Ross Stevens and Steven Meeks took documentary photos before demolition. Photo: Mike Marshall. Photo: Mike Marshall

The City of Charlottesville implemented its own ordinance in 1976, identifying specific structures and neighborhoods that fall under its auspices. City planners set up major “architectural design control districts” in historic areas such as Rugby Road, Ridge Street, and the Corner. A local Board of Architectural Review must approve any construction, alteration, or demolition in those areas. Penalties for tearing down a historic structure without approval can cost the owner up to twice the fair market value of the building. Less-restrictive “historic conservation districts,” such as the Martha Jefferson district, seek to ensure that new construction and additions are in harmony with the scale and character of existing buildings.

One obstacle to passing an ordinance in Albemarle for individual owners and developers alike is concern about potential limits on the use or appearance of the property. “People are sometimes concerned about the marketability of a property that is designated as historic,” said Ross Stevens, longtime real estate broker and member of the HPC, though he noted that the designation can also be a selling point. There can be tax benefits to owning a historic structure in the form of tax deductions on the value of home projects and upgrades, and Stevens thinks these are a key inducement. “Property owners must have the proper incentives to want to preserve their properties, just as the conservation easements on land are fabulous incentives for people to benefit from and preserve their land,” he said.

“What people may not realize is that the goal of an ordinance is as much to protect what’s around them as their own property,” said Spengler of Preservation Piedmont. Indeed, education of property owners is an important part of the county’s Historic Preservation Plan. Steven Meeks, president of the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society, is well versed in the history of trying to preserve history in the region, and he takes the long view. “I think if you are fortunate enough to own one of these historic resources, you ought to be prepared to help maintain it and preserve it,” he said. “It’s your property, but it’s part of our culture, our heritage.”

Dr. Jared Loewenstein (Photo courtesy of Eduardo Montes-Bradley)

In the absence of an ordinance, what else can be done? One technique is to keep a record of historic houses by surveying the structures before they are torn down. “The National Park Service has guidelines for documenting a historic property, which include creating a footprint, taking measurements, and taking outside and inside photos,” explained Spengler. “It’s a complete record, so that if someone later would want to understand what it looked like after it’s gone, they could see it.” Requests for demolition permits are routed through the county Planning office so these surveys can be conducted before the structure is gone. The Smith house was documented by local historians Meeks and Stevens several weeks ago, thanks to this process.

The preserved Western Ridge clubhouse. Photo: Lisa Martin

Developers themselves, recognizing the character that a historic structure lends to an area, have provided several recent success stories. Hunter Craig preserved the original farmhouse in the Western Ridge development and renovated it as the community’s clubhouse. The Bain House at Bargamin Park was restored and is now the centerpiece of that neighborhood. In northern Albemarle, a Jefferson-era house was discovered by the owners of the planned Brookhill development, and the house will be preserved and protected while awaiting National Register of Historic Places certification.

Awaiting the county’s next move, Jean Hiatt tried to find a silver lining in the destruction of the Smith house. “Seeing something like this happen might encourage the citizens of Albemarle to become more involved, to think about asking their Board of Supervisors for a historic preservation ordinance,” she said. She and others working to save historic places hope it won’t be too little, too late.

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