Home’s demolition splits Janesville Historic Commission

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Monday, April 18, 2011
— The recent demolition of 126-year-old house in the Courthouse Hill Historic District has some wondering how the home could have been torn down just months after the city strengthened its preservation ordinance.

It was the first demolition in the district in 12 years, said Gale Price of the city’s planning department, and the demolition likely will change the way the Janesville Historic Commission does business.

“As we have more foreclosures and the opportunity provides itself for people to tear down houses in the historic district, we need to have procedures in place that are going to help the members in that role and make the decision easier,” Price said.

The commission March 14 voted 4-3 to give Bob Coon permission to tear down the home at 115 E. Holmes St.

At least one commission member called the eventual decision “wrenching.”

The home east of the Hedberg Public Library was listed as a contributing structure in the historic district. Contributing structures are defined as being at least 50 years old and having exterior architectural or cultural significance.

Commission members voted after they discovered Coon already had ripped out the floors, cabinets and light fixtures and taken off some siding. Commission rules, however, dictate that the commission consider only the exteriors of historic homes when making decisions.

The commission recently was given more power to deny or approve projects. Previously, it could only delay projects for six months.

Under the new ordinance, a property owner can appeal any commission decision to the plan commission and then the city council.

In Coon’s case, a city clerk erred by not putting the demolition on the historic commission agenda. She sent a notice to the state historical society, which waived a required 30-day waiting period during which it can take pictures. The worker then told Coon he had received state approval, even though the state does not review or approve local demolitions.

Price issued a stop order when he discovered Coon was doing demolition without a hearing before the local historic commission and without a demolition permit.

Commission members disagreed whether the home was too far gone to be rehabbed.

Coon said the electrical system needed replacement and that few of the home’s original architectural features remained. He estimated it would cost $250,000 to make the home habitable.

The home was in foreclosure when Coon bought it for $45,000 with the intention to tear it down. Coon said he told commission members he refused to improve the property if he couldn’t get a demolition permit, “so it would sit there and be a real eyesore. Nobody could rent it in the condition it was.”

Coon, who lives adjacent to the site, said he’d been unhappy with renters in the house and didn’t like that the home had an easement across his property. He said the demolition improves the neighborhood and reduces density.

Commission member Tim Maahs voted against the demolition.

“I felt that the property had redeeming qualities that way outweighed the non-redeemable qualities,” he said.

Maahs said this is the second time Coon has torn down a home adjacent to his property, so Coon must know how the overlay district operates.

“In these older neighborhoods, when you start tearing down the house and leaving empty lots—especially in areas like this where the hillside is terraced to accommodate the homes—the rhythm of the neighborhood has been destroyed,” Maahs said.

Bob Kimball, a general contractor, voted to tear the house down. He and another commissioner toured the property.

“There was no way of putting it back as a historic house,” he said.

Kimball said he might have voted differently if Coon hadn’t already started demolition. The cupboards and flooring were gone. Coon told commission members that two columns from the porch already had been installed on the porch of a Main Street house, Kimball said.

“It shouldn’t have gotten that far, demolition wise, by the time it got to the historic commission. I hope this doesn’t happen again.”

Price said the city would install safeguards to flag any requests for demolition permits in historic districts. The commission in the future will review those requests before the information is sent to the state, he said.

Because commission members struggled with what their role should be concerning proposed demolitions, Price said he is considering having staff make recommendations to advise the commission, based on planning principles and experience.

“When you’re dealing with a complete teardown and the implications on the urban environment, I think that’s a significant enough—drastic-enough occurrence—that it’s only fair for staff to put some time into an actual recommendation,” Price said.

Price said he probably would have recommended against tearing down the structure.

“It was clearly a building that didn’t have a structural defect. Those homes are quite possible to preserve. There was certainly some architectural significance to the main portion of the house.”

Dan Atwood, commission chairman, said a staff recommendation would have been welcomed.

Atwood wasn’t sure whether the house had any remaining historic value by the time Coon purchased it, and he knew Coon would take care of the property because he is a fastidious homeowner. Atwood also knew that Coon would not make the building habitable, so it would remain an eyesore.

Still, Atwood voted against the demolition because he wanted to send a message that demolitions are frowned upon.

“I’m sorry we ever had to get into it,” Atwood said. “It was a wrenching thing.”

Last updated: 4:57 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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