Local historic preservationists and Five Points residents concerned about ongoing total and partial demolition of homes in the intown neighborhood, often followed by construction of homes out of scale and character with surounding homes, got a reprieve Tuesday as Athens-Clarke County commissioners voted to institute two demolition moratoria that could last as long as a year.
The moratoria will apply to the entire length of Milledge Circle, from West Lake Drive to South Lumpkin Street, and will also extend along nearly the entire length of Castalia Avenue from Milledge Circle to the residential lots fronting Oakland Avenue.
There are some limits to the moratoria. They will not apply to building permits for interior renovations, to building permits affecting the rear of a structure (with the exception of the roofline), or to the demolition of outbuildings. The moratoria will remain in effect until June 5 of next year, unless they are repealed earlier by commission action.
As the result of a change to the proposed moratoria made Tuesday night as commissioners were discussing the issue, the moratoria will not apply to new construction in the affected areas.
The moratoria were established for areas contemplated for possible designation as local historic districts, a move being pursued by some neighborhood residents that would, if successful, subject any new construction, demolition or changes to existing structures to approval by the county-appointed Historic Preservation Commission.
Commissioners approved the Milledge Circle demolition moratorium with a 7-3 vote, with Commissioners Diane Bell, Sharyn Dickerson and Harry Sims casting the dissenting votes. The vote for the Castalia Avenue moratorium, where neighbors are in wide agreement regarding local historic district designation, was 9-1, with Bell casting the lone dissenting vote.
Bell’s district includes both of the areas contemplated for local historic district designation, and she has been criticized by some constituents for what they see as her lack of interest in their work to get the designation. Recently, Bell touched off some controversy in Five Points when she revoked a 90-day hold on a demolition permit review application filed by Tyler Elrod, who recently purchased the house at 398 Milledge Circle.
Bell revoked the hold as residents of the Milledge Circle area began working toward getting a local historic district designation. Initially silent on her reasons for revoking the 90-day hold, Bell eventually said she lifted the hold because she did not want Elrod to be hamstrung by any demolition moratorium that might be forthcoming in connection with the neighborhood’s interest in local historic district designation.
The commission’s Tuesday vote precludes dozens of other residential properties in Five Points from even beginning the demolition permit review process.
Elrod was among a number of Five Points residents who spoke against the moratorium Tuesday in the standing-room-only commission chambers at City Hall. Elrod said he had chosen specifically not to buy a home in a locally designated historic district. The Milledge Circle home is within a National Register of Historic Places district, but that federal designation does not include any restrictions on what can be done with properties inside its boundaries.
Elrod, whose wife, Monica, also addressed commissioners Tuesday, said no plans for the property have been finalized. He did say, though, that whatever happens with the property, it will not become one of the homes that are out of scale or out of character with the surrounding neighborhood that have become a source of concern and frustration for Five Points residents.
In comments on the neighborhood’s pursuit of local historic designation, Elrod told commissioners the process has been “unjust and demoralizing,” and has subjected him and his family to “extreme public persecution and shaming.”
Interestingly, there were some strong hints Tuesday that the Elrod’s Milledge Circle home might be preserved, although not on its current site. Laura Welch, a resident of nearby Springdale Street, indicated Tuesday during a public comment portion of the commission meeting that she was in negotiations with Elrod to purchase the house and move it to another lot in a nearby locally designated historic district.
Welch said Tuesday that she is prepared to invest the time and money needed to move the Milledge Circle house — built in 1920 by Marion Caskey, a then-prominent residential contractor whose work can be seen throughout much of Five Points — and indicated that she neither supported nor opposed the moratorium.
There were, however, some sharp words exchanged by others at Tuesday’s meeting. Mike Fitzgerald, a Milledge Circle resident opposed to the moratorium, charged that proponents of the moratorium and local historic designation have been unduly unfair and aggressive in their efforts.
“There’s been a lot of bullying going on with this process … a lot of childish behavior,” he charged.
Monica Elrod spent her time at the podium Tuesday reading a letter from a Milledge Circle resident who called a local historic designation a “nuclear option” under which proponents would insist “that their tastes and preferences should be the tastes and preferences of the entire neighborhood.”
Spence Johnson, an attorney representing Five Points residents opposed to the moratorium and local historic designation, all but threatened a lawsuit in advance of the commission’s Tuesday vote, reminding commissioners that both the state and federal constitutions include protections against the arbitrary “taking” of the value of a piece of property.
“Do you see a crisis on Milledge Circle when you drive down it?” Johnson asked commissioners. “What new has happened that demands your immediate attention?”
Joining property owners on the other side of the issue was Amy Kissane, a Five Points resident who serves as executive director of the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation, which works to promote local historic preservation.
Contending that there are just as many people who would buy a historic home to preserve it as there are people who would tear down such a home to build a new residence, Kissane urged commissioners in advance of the vote to “have a little faith” in the possibilities of historic preservation.
“Do we want to protect our historic resources?” Kissane asked. “If Milledge Circle is not worthy of the protections our community offers, then what is?”