Mount Airy officials appear agreeable to rescinding an earlier decision to demolish a rundown house on Orchard Street, but apparently won’t make that official until next month on the advice of the city attorney.
At the same time, one council member who has been a frequent critic of demolitions of structures violating the city’s minimum housing codes says the issue at hand reinforces the need to avoid tearing down houses prematurely.
“All it takes is the right person,” Commissioner Jon Cawley said of the difference between a structure being renovated or razed.
In the case of the house at 145 Orchard St., the “right person” seems to be Griff Gatewood, who wants to live there. He was introduced as the new minister of First Presbyterian Church in Mount Airy during a Thursday night meeting of the city board of commissioners when the fate of the structure was revisited.
The house was ordered to be torn down last year, with that action delayed soon after when one of its owners made an impassioned appeal to save the structure and allow more time for repairs. But in May, the board decided to go with its original plan for demolition after it appeared nothing had been done to bring it up to code.
Since then, however, a plan emerged from Griff and Elizabeth Gatewood to buy the Orchard Street structure and invest $150,000 to $200,000 on what they described as a “total house renovation” by Griff Gatewood. He has experience in restoring older houses.
The structure on Orchard Street is described as a 1920s-style Craftsman bungalow house.
Based on Thursday night’s discussion, the Gatewoods’ proposal would allow the structure to be saved and produce more revenue for the tax rolls. The alternative is for the city government to tear it down at a cost of $17,500 in demolition and clean-up expenses, then place a lien on the land in an attempt to recoup money spent.
While rescinding the earlier demolition action to allow the Gatewoods to proceed with renovations appeared to be a no-brainer, caution was urged Thursday night by City Attorney Hugh Campbell. He did so in view of the fact that the house purchase by the couple is not a done deal.
“There are certain moving parts that are not settled yet,” Campbell said of the normal procedures accompanying the buying of a house. “Because it’s not finalized at this point, I don’t think it’s appropriate to rescind this.”
Campbell recommended that the commissioners table that move until August, which will allow more time for the transaction to be nailed down. The board voted unanimously to abide by that recommendation.
“It’s not a signal that there’s a problem,” the city attorney quickly added of not taking the action now. He explained that if for some reason the property purchase did no go through, the delay would avoid the board having to repeat the formal process leading to demolition.
While he was supportive of rescinding the decision to raze the house, Commissioner Cawley also commented on the municipality’s procedure regarding the situation.
“I think there’s a larger issue that we need to be addressing,” he said.
If a new minister had not arrived in town and needed a home, the Orchard Street structure could have been torn down at city expense, Cawley said.
The city codes enforcement officer said recently that about a dozen structures have been demolished since Mount Airy officials decided to become more vigilant about addressing dilapidated properties.
Cawley’s has been a voice of dissension on this. One of his concerns is that instead of targeting houses with health and safety violations, as fellow officials have pledged, there is a hidden agenda with beautification as the goal.
He said Thursday night that some of the houses the city has been footing the bill to tear down “could be a great home for another family.”
During Thursday night’s meeting, a letter in support of rescinding the Orchard Street demolition from Ted Alexander — director of the western regional office of the Preservation North Carolina organization — was read by local preservation advocate Carol Burke.
“We were pleased to learn that the city is reconsidering the demolition order,” Alexander wrote.
“We have been working with the Mount Airy Restoration Foundation for many years and know of their desire to improve and revitalize this particular neighborhood,” he added, “so we applaud the council for its decision to reconsider its demolition in order to give the Gatewoods the opportunity to bring the house back on the tax rolls and to increase the overall viability and livability of this older neighborhood.”
Also Thursday night, the city board appointed a new member to the Mount Airy Appearance Commission.
Brooke Lowery was approved for a three-year term that will expire on June 30, 2018.
Lowry is replacing Bill Rountree, whose term with the appearance group expired on June 30. He was not eligible for reappointment.
Mayor Pro Tem Steve Yokeley commended Rountree’s work with the Mount Airy Appearance Commission, which included serving as its chairman.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.