An historic downtown Wilmington house’s days appear to be numbered.
Most recently the home of the Taste of Country restaurant, the long-vacant house at the corner of Front and Ann streets is the subject property in an intent-to-demolish notice that the city’s historic preservation commission is set to consider Thursday.
The owner’s agent, Peter Koke, submitted the notice in an effort to get the city to waive what he says are more than $10,000 worth of fines, fees and penalties imposed on the building since the owner, Mark Evans, purchased the property several years ago. Essentially, Koke is threatening to demolish the building unless the city waives those fines.
While the city cannot stop the demolition, it can delay for a year the effectiveness date of a required certificate of appropriateness, as allowed by the city’s land development code. City staff is advising the commission to do that Thursday, when it takes up the issue at its regular monthly meeting.
But once those 365 days are up, the house would then be allowed to be demolished.
Koke says he does not want to demolish the house—a 19th-century structure considered historically and architecturally significant. But he says the thousands of dollars of city-imposed fines, which he said should not have been levied on the building, make rehabbing the structure uneconomical.
In a letter to the city dated Nov. 20, Koke said: “It is my intention to demolish the building if I am unable to get all fines, inspection fees, penalties, permit fees, and any or all other costs levied by the City of Wilmington, waived.
“I am hoping to gain cooperation with the City of Wilmington in its intent to preserve this historic structure,” Koke says in the letter, which also seeks permission to proceed with work to replace doors, windows and fencing and improve landscaping.
Reached Tuesday, Koke said those fines were inappropriate, contending they were levied for work that he said could be done without permits and was needed to bring the building out of condemnation. The city posted a no-occupancy notice on the building in 2012, by which time Evans owed the city for public nuisance liens, citations and more than $7,000 in back taxes.
Koke said the goal of work performed since then was to stabilize the building “while we figured out what its future would be.” He said Evans has sold his interest in the building to Koke’s sister, Dona Cowan, who he said is in contract and has possession of the property. Koke said he and his sister have plans to turn the building’s lower level into a family gym and spa and its upper floors into an event space with retail.
While he is in the demolition and salvage business, Koke said his goal for the Front Street house is to see it preserved.
“I’m really passionate about saving old structures,” he said. “But on the other end, I am in the demolition business, and if I don’t get some cooperation from the city, it’ll be a pile of flooring at some point.”
Councilwoman Laura Padgett, who has been vocal in calling for the building’s preservation, said she has seen nothing done to the house that would lead her to believe it is intended for anything other than demolition. While she said she supports delaying the demolition, Padgett said the building’s owner should not be let off the hook for violations she said the city must enforce.
“Why should we? We wouldn’t waive them for anybody else,” she said. “He didn’t get the appropriate permits, and I don’t think the city should be bribed to not carry out its regulatory responsibilities.”
While the yearlong delay could be seen as prolonging the inevitable, Padgett said some good could come out of it, in the form of mounting fines that could add to the city’s liens on the property.
“We can continue to hold them responsible for code violations,” Padgett said. “The fines could mount up, especially if they’re not being paid. And if the issues are not being corrected, frankly, why should the surrounding property owners have to deal with the impact of that building on their properties?
“And it shouldn’t be allowed to go on for a year,” she said. “He should have to correct what’s out of code, obtain the permits that he needs to do whatever he wants to do, and pay the back fines. We would treat other people the same way.”
Koke said that’s not the case, referring to Padgett by name in alleging a reluctance by the city to work with him. He said he has not received responses to calls he has made to City Hall, and he said staff secured a magistrate’s warrant to search the house without permission for code violations.
“This is political,” he said. “It’s a lot deeper than some old house.”
Padgett acknowledged demolitions she said Koke has performed in the past that she said she disagreed with, but she said the issue surrounding the house has nothing to do with personalities or the Front Street house, specifically.
“In many cases, if someone has a good reason for having not complied or having done whatever they were fined for, staff is willing to work with them. But at some point, if you’re not correcting the violations, the fines continue,” Padgett said.
Padgett said the house—built in 1865 and known as the W.G. Fowler house—was once a French restaurant before it housed Taste of Country. She said its location is vital to the city as a gateway to downtown, and she said the structure is in keeping with nearby architecture and serves as a transition between residential and commercial areas.
“It was a beautiful building,” Padgett said, noting years of disrepair that started long before Evans bought it.
“My source of dismay is the people that have let it get to this point,” Padgett said. “I don’t think the city does a real good job of enforcing its demolition-by-neglect laws, which should have been brought to bear on this structure a number of years ago. It’s been many, many years that it has been in very bad condition.”
Koke said his hope is that the notice of demolition will spur interest by the public to come to the building’s rescue.
“Maybe a few people will come together and say, ‘You know what? This property deserves to be saved; let’s lease it for whatever, $300,000…’ I don’t know what the solution is,” he said. “But if the city starts cooperating and meets those few things we’ve asked for, maybe something else will happen.
“I just want a normal, even playing field,” he said, “as if I was just a regular person trying to get a permit to do something downtown. I’ve never gotten an even playing field.”
Without participation from the city or intervention by an outside party, Koke said the house would be headed for demolition.
“The home’s days are numbered,” he said, “and it’s going to take a small village to save it.”
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Jonathan Spiers is a reporter for Port City Daily. He can be reached at (910) 772-6313 or email@example.com. On Twitter: @jrspiers