Historic preservation commission has already voted to recommend denial of the request for four homes to be removed from the historic district
Burlington’s planning and zoning commission is slated to consider requests from two sets of property owners who want to withdraw from the city’s largest historic district – a prospect that has caused a considerable stir within this scenic neighborhood northwest of Burlington’s downtown.
During its next regularly-scheduled meeting on Monday, the planning commission’s members will be asked for their recommendation on the proposed defection of four lots along the 1000 block of West Davis Street that currently forms the western edge of the so-called West Davis Street/Fountain Place historic district.
These four properties are currently home to three of the district’s more memorable dwellings – including two baronial residences linked to the renowned Gant textile dynasty of Burlington. Allen Gant, Jr., the family’s most prominent living member as well as the current chairman of Glen Raven, Inc., applied for the withdrawal of these lots last spring in tandem with Emily and Patrick Robinson – two relative newcomers to the historic district who reside in a period home at 1004 West Davis Street.
These requests to secede from the district mark only the second proposed change to the district’s boundaries since its formation nearly 40 years ago. A previous adjustment allowed for the exclusion of First Presbyterian Church, which remains part of a national historic district that served as a rough template for the local historic district – a zoning overlay that imposes various architectural design standards and other restrictions on property owners within the area it encompasses.
The final decision on the proposed removal of the 1000 block of West Davis Street ultimately rests with Burlington’s city council. But as with any zoning request, this potential amendment of the zoning overlay must first go before the city’s planning and zoning commission for an advisory opinion.
City’s historic preservation commission recommends against removing homes from historic district
The proposed change has also received feedback from Burlington’s historic preservation commission – a quasi-judicial body that is responsible for applying and enforcing the design standards within the district.
The historic properties commission issued its formal recommendation against the removal of these properties during a regularly-scheduled meeting on February 8, which took place online over the Zoom teleconferencing platform. At the start of this 3-hour confab, Jamie Lawson, the city’s senior planner, reminded the commission’s members that an effort is already underway to revise the district’s design standards, which the district’s would-be defectors had previously identified as their primary reason for seeking removal.
“We have selected a consultant [the Walker Team] to work with us on the update,” she added, “we are in the midst of reviewing the contract, and we can expect the standards to be completed mid-2022.”
Lawson also notified the commission of the large number of letters and emails that the city has received in opposition to the proposed change in the district’s boundaries.
“We have received 81 – I think I lost count – letters from members of the public,” she said.
The commission’s members also received a report from Ellen Turco, a hired consultant who had been charged with evaluating the proposed change in the district. In her report, Turco recommended against the boundary adjustment in favor of “continuing education” for city officials and property owners, reforms to streamline the district’s design standards and cut through the red tape that renovations currently require, and incentives such as grants and tax credits to counterbalance the obligations that come with owning property within the district.
“The removal of these properties would erode the district’s integrity, but it wouldn’t destroy it.” – Conclusion of report from Ellen Turco, hired consultant
Turco also shared her expert opinion on the properties slated for removal as well as the potential impact of their withdrawal from the district. The consultant went on to acknowledge the historical and architectural significance of the homes within the 1000 block of West Davis Street, although she conceded that the loss of these residences wouldn’t be a death knell to the district itself.
“The removal of these properties would erode the district’s integrity, but it wouldn’t destroy it,” she argued. “I certainly don’t want it to seem like these are not very significant buildings because when you drive through the district, they are visually very different in terms of the size, in terms of the scale, in terms of the landscaping…and these buildings are fancier than some of the others in the district…But there are 150-ish buildings there, so I think if they were removed, you’d still have a historic district.”
Owners of affected homes give their reasons for wanting to secede from historic district
The commission’s members also gave each of the would-be defectors a chance to present their own reasons for withdrawing from the historic district.
For Patrick Robinson, the driving factor was the Gordian knot of red tape that he has to untangle in order to get a certificate of appropriateness from the historic preservation commission for even the most modest home improvements. Robinson added that, in spite of his frustration over this process, he’s still very much committed to the renovation and maintenance of the historic home that he and his wife purchased five years ago.
“We are preservationists: we love this home and we love this neighborhood,” he said. “In the past five years, we have poured so much effort and blood, sweat, and tears into this house…and it was all in an effort to preserve and enhance this home.”
Meanwhile, Emily Robinson assured the commission that it is the hard work of her family and other district residents rather than the bureaucratic trappings that have ensured the historic district’s aesthetic character.
“The design standards are only applied when somebody submits a COA application. They’re not going to prevent a home from falling into disrepair, or being neglected or overgrown,” she said. “They’re only applied when someone’s sending you an application to do work on their home. So, they’re not really protecting homes in this district from falling into disrepair.”
“This conversation is not really about historical designation by the federal or city agencies. It’s a conversation about the bureaucracy, the rules, the standards, and the adoption of new technologies – and the Constitutional rights of a property owner to do what they’re next-door neighbor can do.” – Allen Gant, Jr., owner of three of the properties seeking to be removed from Burlington’s historic district
The district’s regulatory process was also very much on the mind of Allen Gant, whose personal home is one of the dwellings that he is requesting for potential removal.
“This conversation is not really about historical designation by the federal or city agencies,” he told the commission’s members “It’s a conversation about the bureaucracy, the rules, the standards, and the adoption of new technologies – and the Constitutional rights of a property owner to do what they’re next-door neighbor can do.”
Gant went on to object to the restrictions imposed by the district’s design standard, many of which predate the development of 3-D printing and various synthetic materials that he said are widely used elsewhere as substitutes for historically-authentic materials whose use is cost-prohibitive. He also took issue with the apparent absurdity of other restrictions, including the landscaping rules that many of the district’s residents have been rudely introduced to when they’ve engaged in tree removal without, first, clearing it with the historic preservation commission.
“We can now transplant 12-inch diameter trees but yet we can’t cut down a tree that’s 4-inches in diameter or four feet from the ground without a COA. I can’t prune a bush that I planted a month ago without a certificate of appropriateness. Are we really adding value there?
“I think we have certainly lost the ability to use common sense. You’re not standing in the place of having to replace a roof that could cost as much as a quarter of a million dollars. . . And if having the standards updated was caused by us asking to be removed, then I’m happy with that . . . Instead of us working together and trying to improve the community, we’re not, and that’s unfortunate.” – Allen Gant, Jr., owner of three properties that he’s seeking to have removed from Burlington’s historic district
“We can now transplant 12-inch diameter trees but yet we can’t cut down a tree that’s 4-inches in diameter or four feet from the ground without a COA.” “I can’t prune a bush that I planted a month ago without a certificate of appropriateness. Are we really adding value there?”
Gant ultimately insisted that his attempt to defect has grown out of his inability to resolve his concerns through the procedures already available to the district’s residents. He acknowledged that he has even approached members of Burlington’s city council about his misgivings – albeit to no avail.
“I think we have certainly lost the ability to use common sense,” he added. “You’re not standing in the place of having to replace a roof that could cost as much as a quarter of a million dollars…And if having the standards updated was caused by us asking to be removed, then I’m happy with that…Instead of us working together and trying to improve the community, we’re not, and that’s unfortunate.”
Commission members, other residents disagree with Gant’s statements, conclusions
Gant’s rhetoric eventually got on the nerves of the commission’s chairman James Euliss, who interrupted his comments in the purported interest of moving the meeting along.
“It’s not my intention to not let you speak,” Euliss subsequently said. “I like things to [stick to] the facts.”
Some of Gant’s comments also went over poorly with other residents of the district, who were able to share their thoughts on the requested change in the boundaries when the commission opened the floor to public comments.
“I would say that under the current guidelines, there is a degree of flexibility. The guidelines don’t require a COA to prune bushes [as Gant had implied], and the Robinsons were allowed to use modern composite replacement materials in their recent application for windows.
“This is about the entire neighborhood, and not just a couple of individual property owners. In fact, two of these properties are owned by an international corporation; nobody lives there. I think it’s disingenuous to say that Glen Raven…is unable to maintain its properties within the guidelines.” – Molly Whitlatch, West Davis Street resident and former chairman of the historic preservation commission
Molly Whitlatch, a West Davis Street resident who previously served as the chairman of the historic preservation commission, took issue with some of the particulars that both Gant and the Robinsons offered to bolster their case for removal.
“I would say that under the current guidelines, there is a degree of flexibility,” she said “The guidelines don’t require a COA to prune bushes [as Gant had implied], and the Robinsons were allowed to use modern composite replacement materials in their recent application for windows.
“This is about the entire neighborhood, and not just a couple of individual property owners,” she added. “In fact, two of these properties are owned by an international corporation; nobody lives there. I think it’s disingenuous to say that Glen Raven…is unable to maintain its properties within the guidelines.”
Other speakers were more sympathetic to Gant and the Robinsons although they, too, urged the would-be defectors to reconsider their requests.
Yvonne Whitley, another West Davis Street resident, said that the properties slated for removal are among the most beautiful, best maintained in the district.
“To be honest with you, that is probably a very strong reason why there’s a great desire to keep you in the district because you well represent it,” she said. “I understand the frustration and the challenge when you don’t have that information…and it would be great to have some conversation and some sharing of ideas.”
“I have a selfish reason for not wanting you to leave which is that the work you have done on your places has just been remarkable,” agreed another neighbor – Jim Clark. “But I understand where they are coming from…We are in 2022 now and things are changing rapidly…We do need to upgrade the way the commission works. We need to make it more expedient so it takes less time to get things done.”
The commission ultimately heard from nine individuals who were unanimous in their desire to keep the 1000 block of West Davis Street within the historic district. The group later received the same recommendation from a three-member subcommittee that it had delegated to draft a report to submit to both Burlington’s planning and zoning commission and the city council.
The commission’s members went on to give their unanimous blessing to the subcommittee’s draft after Brian Pennington, a member of the subcommittee, suggested some revisions to underscore “the overwhelming public response,” which was “unanimous in urging rejection of these applications.”
Yet, when all was said and done, there were signs of optimism even from Gant about the potential outcome of the commission’s debate.
“I appreciate your candor,” he told his critics both on the group and in the general public. “It’s interesting to me that it takes this type of action in order for a conversation to be had.
One of my main points is that we have lost the sense of common sense and sitting down and working things out…If anything we have created an environment where the conversation can be had and that’s great. But I don’t think we can take our pressure off until we see the results.”
See earlier coverage (Sept. 9, 2021) when historic preservation commission was given tour of the houses seeking to leave this historic district: https://alamancenews.com/retired-industrialist-requests-three-properties-including-his-house-be-removed-from-citys-historic-district/