Raleigh to file court appeal to save Oakwood modernist house

ccampbell@newsobserver.comMarch 20, 2014 

Architect Louis Cherry will be forced to stop construction on his controversial modernist home in the Oakwood neighborhood – five months after the city issued his building permit.

JULI LEONARD — jleonard@newsobserver.com

  • Dueling news conferences Friday

    Opponents and supporters of the modernist house are holding separate news conferences to make their case Friday morning in Oakwood.

    At 10 a.m. in front of the Nightingale family’s 1920 home on East Jones Street, members of the Society for the Preservation of Historic Oakwood will explain their concerns about the house and the precedent it could set.

    “Our whole reason for coming together is to try to help and protect the integrity of the neighborhood,” the society’s Will Hillebrenner said. “We want to bring some more information to light on how we got to where we are, and it’s not some crazy happening that’s subject to ridicule. This is a natural progression of what the guidelines state.”

    The supporters’ media event happens one hour later in front of the modernist house. N.C. Modernist Houses plans to announce a new legal defense fund for the home and other “modernist houses under threat.”

— City officials announced Thursday that they’ll appeal a recent Board of Adjustment action that would force a controversial modernist house in the Oakwood neighborhood to be torn down.

In a brief news release, the city cited “concerns about procedural irregularities” in the board’s 3-2 vote last month as its reason for filing the appeal to Wake County Superior Court.

“In my mind, this is the best thing to do: to have an objective third party look at the evidence and make a decision,” Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin said. “For a lot of people, the integrity of our process is at stake. They’re scared that our process is broken, and we have to restore trust in that process.”

Opponents of the Euclid Street house say the design is inappropriate for a historic district, and they don’t want public funds spent to defend a single property.

But some historic preservationists have called on city leaders to lead the appeal, saying that allowing the Board of Adjustment ruling to stand would gut the power of city historical commissions, which are charged with determining whether new construction is appropriate for a historic district like Oakwood.

The owners of the nearly complete home, Louis Cherry and Marsha Gordon, also plan to file an appeal. Cherry said he’s pleased with the city’s decision, which followed a closed-door Raleigh City Council meeting Tuesday.

“That’s what we had been hoping for,” he said. “It helps us with our appeal. The city is acknowledging objectively that there are issues to be addressed.”

Procedural concerns

City Attorney Tom McCormick could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday. But another city attorney, Dorothy Leapley, outlined some of the city’s concerns about the Board of Adjustment ruling earlier this month.

Leapley said the board failed to establish whether across-the-street neighbor Gail Wiesner has the right to challenge Cherry’s permits. She said Wiesner would need to offer proof that her property value will be affected – something that didn’t happen during Board of Adjustment hearings.

“The courts said simply living across the street wasn’t good enough in itself,” Leapley told the board before it finalized the ruling.

Leapley said Wiesner’s role is among several issues the board failed to resolve. The attorney also said the ruling needs to be based on the “physical environment” of the entire Oakwood neighborhood, not individual streets or homes.

The appeal marks the first time in recent memory that the historical commission’s approval has ended up in a courtroom. The court hearings could pit McCormick’s staff against an outside attorney who represents the Board of Adjustment but is paid by the city.

Implications for builders

Cherry said the case before Superior Court judges has implications far beyond his property. The Board of Adjustment’s ruling, he said, could weaken the Raleigh Historic Development Commission, the City Council-appointed board charged with protecting historical districts. That board approved Cherry’s home, but a three-member majority on the Board of Adjustment said the RHDC had failed to properly apply its own rules.

If another city board can revoke building permits after they’ve been issued, builders won’t have enough confidence to invest in historic neighborhoods, Cherry and his supporters have argued.

“(The RHDC members) have been trained to evaluate design proposals, and potentially this really undercuts their effectiveness,” Cherry said. “It’s important to establish and settle how the Raleigh Historic Development Commission can grant approvals.”

Those who oppose a city-led appeal say the dispute should be worked out between Cherry and Wiesner, and the Board of Adjustment is within its rights as an appeals board to overturn the historical commission’s decision.

“Our collective resources and funds should not be spent on this type of dispute, especially in a situation where the people building the house went ahead with construction knowing that an appeal was likely,” Denise O’Daniel wrote to City Council members last week.

Campbell: 919-829-4802; Twitter: @RaleighReporter

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