Oxfordtown, Oxfordtown . . .

We don’t have a subscription to the digital Oxford Eagle edition, but our Oxford friends have been rumbling recently about a preservation issue that’s been in the news. The controversy sprang from a demolition request for an 1890 Queen Anne house at 1405 Madison, located within the city’s local historic district, which is overseen by the Historic Preservation Commission (there’s a separate commission that oversees the Courthouse Square). The house is also a contributing building in the North Lamar Historic District, listed on the National Register in 2007.

1405 Madison Oxford003 (1024x765)

The owner, Dr. Tom Tann, stated that he had bought the house planning to renovate but then decided to build new after seeing its level of deterioration (the house had been vacant for some time). At its March 12, 2013 meeting, the commission voted 4-2 to deny a demolition permit and voted 5-1 to deny the permit for the new larger house.

You can read the minutes of the meeting helpfully posted by the City of Oxford at its website (scroll down to #9): http://www.oxfordms.net/documents/boards/hpc/minutes/HPC-2013-03-12.pdf

Here are two scale drawings showing the two buildings in comparison to each other–you can see the huge difference in scale immediately:

Oxford

Oxford

Dr. Tann appealed these decisions to the Oxford Board of Aldermen, which considered the matter at its April 2 meeting. The Board of Aldermen overturned the denial of demolition permit, 7-0; and also overturned the Commission’s denial of a Certificate of Appropriateness for its proposed replacement by a vote of 5-2. With these actions, the Board of Aldermen made a decision not to support its own Commission and not to enforce its historic preservation ordinance. While historic preservation commissions are city boards, they are composed, like many zoning commissions, of volunteers who give their time and expertise to help preserve historic neighborhoods in compliance with local ordinances. Some city boards respect the decisions of their commissions and only overturn when due process has been denied. But here Oxford’s leadership clearly decided that what they really want is more McMansions and high-rise condos and fewer real historic buildings in their decreasingly historic town.

I can’t seem to find the minutes for the Board of Aldermen meeting.

I have heard but haven’t confirmed that one or more historic preservation commissioners have resigned in protest.

It’s great to have a few big landmarks, like Rowan Oak and Ammadelle, but historic neighborhoods are made up of older houses like this one that contribute to the narrative of the town and its sense of place with their architectural style, scale, and craftsmanship. If those qualities are not important to the City, then perhaps they should drop the charade, repeal the preservation ordinance and reconstitute the commission as an architectural review board on the order of Madison or other suburban developments that cash in on fake history and a faux sense of quality.



Categories: Historic Preservation, Oxford, Preservation Law/Local Commissions

19 replies

  1. Good article. It’s that simple, the city or town is either for preservation and will back up its commissions, or it’s not, in which case get rid of the commission and move on to the future.

    We represent the historic landmarked Skykomish Hotel in WA state where the town makes varying decisions based on the ownership and not its historic value. This beauty may well be lost without some assistance. We sure would appreciate if you would view our campaign (with a short 3 minute video) to raise funds http(colon)//alturl(dot)com/wv3zu, contribute and help spread the word.

    Thank you.

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  2. It’s wonderful to preserve historic properties when they are reasonably salvageable. If the house had been empty for some time, it was no doubt in very poor shape. So unless the historic preservation committee is also willing to contribute to the costly renovation, I think it’s unwise to simply deny new home construction based on its “historic value” only. Does Oxford want a town full of small, historically significant homes that are falling apart, full of raccoons, and fire hazards? The time for the board to get involved was a decade ago or longer when renovation and salvage of this property was actually an OPTION.
    Also there seems to be great bias on the size of the house. If that’s the case, the city should pass a a size limitation code for all new construction- not something specifically targeting the historic preservation district.

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    • The Historic Preservation Commission’s sole purpose–given to them by the Board of Aldermen, which enacted the historic preservation ordinance–is to rule on “historic value.” By enacting those oridinances, the BOA stated both directly and implicitly that historic value is important to the city.

      Oxford seems to want to think of itself in the same league as Natchez or Columbus, but those two towns have made these hard decisions many many times over the last number of decades to get to the point where they are, where large historic neighborhoods are still there and still intact with lots of small and medium-size houses that contribute to the history of the town. If Oxford isn’t willing to stick to its guns on these relatively easy calls, then as I said above, they should abandon the notion of historic districts and just pass some architectural guidelines for new construction that they may or may not enforce when the time comes.

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  3. It’s all about (allegedly) the tax dollars that the city will receive with the newer property being constructed. Larger home, higher appraisal, KACHING! TAX REVENUE instead of tax credits (non-revenue).

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    • I would not be surprised if an element of this story involved the persistant paranoia concerning “get the government out of everything I do or touch or see or hear or read”. Tiresome.

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      • And I must say, the rendering of that big new house does not suggest an owner with shallow pockets. Crying about restoration costs is a pretty bogus arguement,

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  4. Living in Atlanta, I know – developers and people from other places with lots of money would tear down Ammadale and every other historic house in Oxford if it suited their pocket books and/or egos. The historic heart of Oxford is small enough to be preserved. People who want mammouth houses have a huge county full of vacant land on which to build. Let them go there and save Oxford.

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  5. I’m in Oxford. I’ve watched this house sitting empty and declining (it was held by a bank after foreclosure) pretty upset by what I was seeing. The ordinances supposedly prevent owners from accomplishing demolition by neglect, but that is exactly what has occurred here.

    One of the neighbors cited as supporting this demolition, directly across the street, let a house literally two houses down decline in this way and has demolished it in the last week. That one did not have the significance to the neighborhood of this one, but still… it is where this neighborhood is being allowed to go.

    I’m obviously not privy to the engineering reports on the house, although an engineer is going to be able to give you the answer you want– can this house be save when I want it saved? Sure. Is it too far gone? Sure. What bothers me most about this is that it is one of a number of decisions where the alderman are not backing either the preservation ordinance or the preservation committee.

    And, responding to Malvaney’s remark: There may be people in Oxford who would like it to be in the league of Columbus or Natchez, but it’s not. This property’s loss would not be remotely as significant in those towns as it is on Madison here in Oxford.

    There is a gingko tree in that houses yard that’s the best one in Oxford, comparable to the ones on the North side of the courthouse in Holly Springs, if not better. I hope this new house spares it.

    Truly a sad moment. Thanks for a great and clear post about it.

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  6. Thanks for a great and accurate post. To date, two Preservation Commissioners resigned after this BOA decision. I attended bot the PC meeting and the BOA meeting where this was considered. I believe the PC was prepared to authorize demolition if they had a replacement plan they could approve (as required). They asked Dr. Tann to work with them to bring his house design into conformance with the District’s Design Guidelines. He said he had his mind made up; it was his design or none. The BOA MAY have been correct in authorizing the demolition, but they were VERY wrong in not sending the Tanns and their house designer back to the HP Commission for a COA.

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  7. Historic Preservation Groups restrict what private property owners can do with their own property. If I buy an old house and want to tear it down to build a new one, then by-God that’s my right. If you want to save historic houses, get some money together and buy them yourself. Otherwise, stop telling private owners what they can or can’t do with their homes.

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    • That’s a pretty broad brush to paint all Historic Preservation Groups as attempting to place restrictions on property owners. I am sorry you feel that way.

      Preservation commissions don’t exist so you have the pleasure of appearing before them, they exist to prevent your neighbor from doing things that lower your property value. They are just another type of zoning, the same regulations that keep things like paper mills and toxic waste dumps out of neighborhoods.

      The good doctor bought the house in 2012 well after the current historic preservation ordinance was created 2009, so it should not be a surprise that the demolition would be denied by the commission. If the city’s Demolition by Neglect laws were stronger they might have prevented the house from getting in its current deteriorated state.

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    • How about if I decide to start a landfill on my property right next door to yours? Or maybe keep ten hunting dogs in the back yard? Or put up a ten-foot fence on all sides? These things might make sense in the country, but in a town, ordinances restricting what you can and can’t do with your property are everywhere and they exist for a reason.

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  8. I stand behind my above comments. Resolutions of all-or-nothing “by-God that’s my right” arguements vs. advocating a sense of common good (if one even believes in such a thing),occur in grey areas, It’s always a little eyebrow-raising to see conservatives advocating against preservation of any kind. Because, you know…

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    • I agree with your basic point, obviously, but I think you will find by following the link to Pilot’s blog that he or she would classify himself as a libertarian, which is not the same thing as a conservative. I, for instance, am often found politically on the conservative side of the fence, and don’t agree with a libertarian viewpoint about the “common good.”

      Regardless, preservation has its own politics, and I think transcends the national politics that has gotten so angry and bitter. I don’t think it’s good for the long-term health of preservation to get caught up in the same rancor that now makes friendly conversations about national politics almost impossible.

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      • I did follow Pilot’s link to his site and yes, he is clearly a libertarian. I wasn’t very clear. Libertarians, mostly as Pilot does, seem to have no interest in a sense of civitas. Conservatives do, and believe in valuing the past, except when it concerns their property. Then, ironically, oops…I don’t have enough money to help conserve my little part of it. Although I love the Natchez Pilgramage.

        These are poorly worded thoughts but are roughly my thoughts.

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      • That’s a pretty broad generalization. I assume you meant to say “some conservatives . . .” I’ve known many conservatives who take great joy in preserving their own landmark house, great or small, and view that preservation as their small part in preserving their community’s history. I’ve also known many liberals and even libertarians who have the same perspective. On the other hand, sure there are hypocrites of all persuasions.

        My point is that the preservation ethic transcends national political parties, and if it is to survive, it must continue to strive to include people of all political persuasions rather than trying to ostracize conservatives into thinking they have no place in the preservation movement.

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        • I respectfully disagree with the notion that “the preservation ethic transcends national political parties”. I wish it was so. However, there are two fundamentally different political belief systems we deal with, and to assert that they both view, or should view, anything in the same light seems wishful. Ostracization, no. Realization, yes.

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        • I didn’t say every preservationist views preservation in the same light or from the same perspective, but that preservation transcends national political parties. Those aren’t the same thing, except for the hyper-partisan. I’ve sat around too many tables with groups that are much more liberal (or Democratic, if you prefer) than me–but we’re all working together to save this historic place that’s important to them–to accept your viewpoint as realistic or healthy for the preservation movement. Do we ever vote for the same person? Probably not. Do they have different reasons for wanting to save the place? Of course! Who cares, as long as we’re working together to preserve this place and its important story for the next generation? What good does it do anyone to start harumphing because we have different motivations for being preservationists?

          My point is that it will be the death knell of the preservation movement if it becomes associated primarily with one political party, no matter the Dems or the Reps, or the Greens, or the Progressives, or the Tea Party or the Libertarians (well, that last one will never happen :-). We have to be able to reach across to people we disagree with to preserve and work together to maintain the historic places of our community, city, state, nation–if we lose that ability, or become unwilling to do it, then stand back and watch those places crumble in a generation.

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          • We can’t have a conversation about which is tastier, apples or oranges, if you don’t even believe in fruit. We can’t have a conversation about different reasons for investing in preservation if you don’t even believe it should be funded. And public funding is what I have been talking about, because the private sector will never be interested in investing the necessary capital to save a vacated small-town WPA post office. Not to mention the physical remnants of an extinct college.

            Of course these are all worthwhile undertakings The memory of a place cannot remain in a working condition without the existence of the place itself. We can agree on that. What I am saying is, as much as we wish everyone, all parties, would be willing to (metaphorically) stand in the way of a bulldozer, that just is not going to happen. And preservationists need to look closely before hitching their wagons to a particular group.

            At least that’s been my experience

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