In a rarely used parliamentary maneuver, a group of Athens-Clarke County commissioners are convening a special called meeting of the commission to consider beginning the process of establishing a local historic district in the Milledge Circle area of the county’s intown Five Points neighborhood.
The meeting, set for 6 p.m. Tuesday in the commission’s City Hall chambers in advance of the regularly scheduled agenda-setting session, has been arranged under terms of a county charter provision that allows any five of the 10 district commissioners to call for a meeting outside of the commission’s regular schedule of meetings.
Commissioner Allison Wright, who represents part of the Five Points area, but not Milledge Circle, has been working with Commissioner Mike Hamby, whose district likewise includes part of Five Points, but not Milledge Circle, to address the concerns of residents who want a local historic district established in both the Milledge Circle area and along nearby Castalia Avenue.
Wright and Hamby have moved across their district lines as Commissioner Diane Bell, whose district does include Milledge Circle, has lifted a 90-day hold that she had placed on a demolition permit application review for a home at 398 Milledge Circle. The house, and the 0.63-acre lot on which it sits, were recently sold for $667,000 to a Travis Elrod, who filed for a demolition review in March. That paperwork indicated Elrod plans to demolish the house, which was built in 1920 by Marion Caskey, a well-known local builder of the era.
The house is within the National Register of Historic Places-designated Milledge Circle Historic District, but that federal designation offers no protection against demolition or modification of properties. A local historic district designation, on the other hand, would require any renovation or demolition of structures within the district to be approved by the Athens-Clarke County Historic Preservation Commission, a group of appointees who decide on the appropriateness of proposed changes.
Following Bell’s lifting of the 90-day hold on any issuance of a demolition permit for the house at 398 Milledge Circle — a time typically used by people in the surrounding neighborhood to pursue local historic district designation — a number of Five Points residents came to the May 2 commission meeting with a petition for a moratorium on demolition permits in the neighborhood and to ask for work toward establishing the area as a local historic district. The petition was a prelude to getting on the agenda for the commission’s upcoming Tuesday agenda-setting meeting with a formal request for a demolition moratorium and work toward establishing a local historic district.
A number of speakers pressed Bell at the May 2 meeting for an explanation of her decision to lift the hold, effectively opening the door for demolition to proceed at any time, but Bell remained silent, saying only, “There’s a time to be silent.” After the meeting, Bell said she needed to seek some unspecified “counsel” before commenting on her decision. Two days later, Bell told the Athens Banner-Herald that she opted to lift the 90-day hold because she did not want to unduly hinder the new owner of 398 Milledge Circle, who could face a long delay in his plans for the property if a moratorium was established and a local historic designation was sought.
Residents of the Five Points neighborhood have been particularly sensitive to demolition requests over the last few years, having seen homes either totally or partially demolished and replaced with larger homes that are out of scale and character with the surrounding neighborhood. A new infill housing ordinance, pursued under some pressure from intown residents, is aimed at addressing some of those concerns, by allowing for increases in building heights only as structures are moved farther back from their lot lines.
Wright said earlier this week that nine of the 10 district commissioners signed on for this upcoming Tuesday’s special called meeting to talk about establishing local historic districts in the Milledge Circle and Castalia Avenue neighborhoods.
Wright said that prior to pursuing the charter provision allowing commissioners to call special meetings, she had asked Mayor Nancy Denson. Denson, who has been consistently reluctant to institute moratoriums, declined the request.