The longstanding boundaries of the largest historic district in Burlington could themselves become a thing of the past due to one prominent businessman’s bid to withdraw several properties from this overlay district.
Allen E. Gant, Jr., the former CEO and current chairman of Glen Raven, Inc., has submitted an application to have three properties along the 1000 block of West Davis Street removed from the district, which covers roughly seven acres along West Davis and West Front streets plus an extensive section of Fountain Place. Gant’s property constitutes the westernmost edge of this district.
Gant’s application, which was submitted to the city’s planning department on April 27, requests an amendment in the district’s boundaries to remove two baronial homes at 1022 and 1016 West Davis Street as well as a vacant lot at 1010 West Davis Street. Gant also has an ownership stake in another historic dwelling at the western edge of this block, although this home is already situated outside the bounds of the district.
The planning department has subsequently received another application from Patrick and Emily Robinson for the removal of a home that they own at 1004 West Davis Street. The Robinsons’ request, which is dated May 21, would effectively detach what’s left of the block that’s otherwise owned entirely by Gant.
According to Jamie Lawson, a city planner within Burlington’s planning department, these applications have been passed along to a contractor to review on the city’s behalf. In the meantime, Gant has reached out to the city’s historic preservation commission to expound on his desire to defect from the district which he has been part of since its inception nearly four decades ago.
In response to a personal invitation from Gant, the members of this quasi-judicial board held a special meeting earlier this week to tour the properties that he and the Robinsons have asked to have carved out of the overlay district.
During this alfresco gathering, which took place on Tuesday afternoon, Gant guided the group through the grounds of the two dwellings he owns within the district as well as a third that lies outside its boundaries. Gant also provided an unvarnished account of his frustration with the rules and regulations that apply within the historic district, and which the historic preservation commission is ultimately responsible for overseeing.
“The city and county have chosen not to invest to bring up the standards, and I’m the one who’s having to pay the cost of doing this . . . I have met with the city fathers, the city manager, and the head of the planning department, and I said ‘I am here because you have decided not to invest in the process. . . and I am ending up having to pay for your laziness.’”– Allen E. Gant, Jr.
Among Gant’s many complaints was the alleged obsolescence of these rules, many of which date back to the 1990s, and which the property owner blamed the city’s top brass for not having updated.
Gant’s application to withdraw from the district isn’t the first such request that the city has received since the area was officially added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. Lawson recalled that, at some point in the late ‘90s, the city allowed the congregation of First Presbyterian Church to have its West Davis Street sanctuary pulled from the historic district. Since then, however, the district’s bounds have remained as firmly rooted as the old growth trees that shade its period homes.
The two homes that Gant is seeking to have removed from the district are among the more noteworthy of the many remarkable dwellings that exist in this part of the city. During Tuesday’s sightseeing expedition, Gant shared some of the history of these abodes which his father Allen and his uncle Roger constructed roughly 90s years ago during the heyday of the textile industry in Alamance County.
These two sons of John Q. Gant – who founded a textile company in 1880 that eventually gave rise to Glen Raven, Inc. – left as indelible a mark on the architectural history of Burlington as their father had on the community’s industrial landscape. Roger Gant, the older of the two brothers, was the first to break ground with the stately Georgian revival home that now stands at 1016 West Davis Street. It wasn’t long, however, before he was one-upped by his younger brother Allen, the current property owner’s father and namesake, whose Tudor-style residence at 1022 West Davis Street is widely considered the crown jewel of the historic district.
The manor at 1022 West Davis Street, which now serves as Allen Gant, Jr.’s personal home, even received special mention in the application that the city submitted to the National Park Service nearly 40 years ago to obtain federal recognition for the historic district. The application describes this dwelling as “one of Burlington’s purest examples of the Tudor Revival style” and adds that it “also appears to be the most finely crafted dwelling in the West Davis Street-Fountain Place District.”
“Situated on an enormous lot at the southwest corner of the district,” the application goes on to assert, “the Allen Gant House combines stone, stucco, wood and brick in a variety of forms to create a semblance of late Medieval construction techniques.”
The home’s current occupant expressed a similar sense of reverence as he whisked the members of the city’s historic commission around the grounds of this residence on Tuesday. Gant acknowledged that, in addition to serving as his own digs, the house that his father constructed routinely hosts the dignitaries that visit Burlington as guests of Glen Raven, Inc.
“We have leaders of industry from all over the world coming here,” he told the commission’s members before noting the senators, congressmen, and three former governors who’ve also been among the home’s distinguished visitors.
Gant nevertheless acknowledged that the maintenance of this architectural showpiece has required a substantial investment in time and resources on his part. He insisted that this burden has been all the more onerous due to the restrictions imposed on the historic district’s property owners.
The rules and regulations that have apparently become Gant’s personal bête noir were implemented roughly three years after the historic district received national recognition in 1984. In 1987, Burlington’s city council adopted special overlay zoning for the district that aims to preserve the period architecture and unique character of this particular area.
The rules for this overlay district are spelled out in a historic design manual that was initially drafted with the district’s creation – with substantial revisions taking place in 1995 and 2000. The latest version of this manual asserts that the point of these rules isn’t to erect a regularly glass case around the district but to preserve the historic and cultural elements of a vibrant neighborhood.
“Changes within historic districts is inevitable,” the document states. “Historic districts should blend the best of both old and new, while ensuring that the special character of these areas is maintained.
“By such designation and regulation of historic districts and individual properties, the city of Burlington and the Historic Preservation Commission hope to stabilize the remaining historic housing stock, to encourage the efforts of area residents to conserve the environment of the historic neighborhoods, and to protect Burlington’s heritage.”
The responsibility for this regulatory balancing act rests largely with the historic preservation commission. The members of this appointed advisory board have the legal authority to review potential changes to the district’s structures and landscaping and to approve those that they deem to be consistent with its historic design standards.
The district’s property owners are obligated to seek a “certificate of appropriateness” from the commission in order to conduct any “major work” within the district. This designation that not only applies to large-scale construction or demolition projects but also other, less obvious modifications, such as the installation or removal of shutters, the addition of permanent or temporary handicapped ramps that can be seen from the street, sandblasting and similarly “abrasive cleaning methods,” and the removal of healthy trees with trunks more than four inches in diameter.
In addition to the regulatory hurdles that confront the district’s property owners, its denizens are also obligated to comply with the aforementioned historic design standards, which saw their last substantial revisions more than 20 years ago.
The relative antiquity of these standards hasn’t been lost on the city’s planning department, which recently applied for $20,000 from the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources to pay for an overhaul of this document. The state agency formally responded to this submission in July when it announced that it had not only accepted the planning department’s application but would allocate an additional $2,000 over and above the requested sum.
The announcement of this grant came too late to preempt Gant’s own application to have his property removed from the historic district.
In his submission to the planning department, Gant simply asserts that he feels it’s “no longer economically viable” for him “to be part of the district.” The application which the department subsequently received from Patrick Robinson also contends that it’s “financially disadvantageous” to be part of the district.
Robinson nevertheless attributes this allegedly inordinate expense to the “standards imposed” by the overlay zoning. He goes on to express particular irritation that the “current standards severely limit the homeowners’ ability to make energy efficient updates and improvements to their dwelling.”
Gant ultimately revealed a similar sense of consternation with the existing design standards during his walk and talk with the historic preservation commission. In response to an inquiry from one of the group’s members, he noted that the existing standards don’t make any allowance for the technological breakthroughs that have revolutionized the business of historical preservation over the past 20 years.
“One of the issues that we have is the approved use of synthetic materials,” he said. “I can print doors on a 3-D printer less expensively than [the originals cost to construct].”
“If I have to ask for permission to replant a tree I planted last year, it seems like a waste of your time and attention.”– allen e. gant, jr.
Gant also objected to the persnicketyness of some of the district’s regulatory requirements. He was especially critical of the red tape involved in landscaping changes, such as the removal of trees. Gant pointed out that, under the current rules, he can’t even remove a tree that he planted a year ago without obtaining a certificate of appropriateness from the commission.
“Under your guidelines, I have to ask permission to cut it down,” he elaborated.
The members of the historic preservation commission ultimately took no formal action in response to Gant’s proposed defection.
Under the terms of the city’s unified development ordinance, any proposed change in the district requires the commission to, first, conduct a formal investigation and issue a report that describes the proposed boundaries as well as the “significance” of the structures and features they would contain.
The report must then be submitted to the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, which has 30 days to review it and issue a recommendation. The proposed change can then go before Burlington’s city council for a final decision, under the same procedures it uses to evaluate a rezoning request.
The historic preservation commission that Gant escorted through his property on Tuesday was somewhat different from the one that presided over the district when the property owner submitted his application for removal. Over the summer, the commission bid farewell to several long-serving members, including both its chairman and vice chairman, who have since been replaced by new appointees of Burlington’s city council.
The group’s current lineup includes a new chairman, James Euliss, and a new vice chairman, Brian Pennington. Its other members are Kristina Meinking, Russ Vandermass-Peeler, Lori Bryan, Josh Adkins, and Wendy Geiss.