Point of View

Oakwood builders knew decision to start work was a risk

March 22, 2014 

JULI LEONARD — jleonard@newsobserver.com

Raleigh’s Historic Oakwood neighborhood has over many years played an important role in the day to day life of the City of Raleigh. As both Raleigh’s first National Register Historic District (1974) and local Historic District (1975), Historic Oakwood has paved the way for the establishment of many other Historic Districts.

It was through the fight that the neighborhood (and early preservationists) put up in the face of the state’s decision to raze over 100 houses here in the early 1970s – making way for what would have been the North-South Expressway – that the preservation tide started to roll in favor of saving those parts of the city that would preserve our proud historic heritage for all generations.

As a matter of law, property owners with homes within the boundaries of the “Historic Oakwood” neighborhood are bound by the rules and regulations set forth in City Code Section 10-2052, Historic Overlay District. These statutes clearly lay out what can and cannot be done to properties and also govern any proposed development.

When you purchase property in an identified Historic District, you know that you have certain protections and certain obligations. The statutes that govern the Historic District clearly address the current situation regarding the house being built on Euclid Street. In this case, the prospective homeowners properly petitioned the Raleigh Historic Development Commission for permission to build and applied for a Certificate of Appropriateness.

The RHDC granted the COA. Within a few days, a Raleigh resident chose to appeal through a process clearly spelled out in the City Code. The prospective homeowners were notified of this appeal and told that if they decided to move forward, any construction before the appeal was over would be at their own risk.

They chose to move forward and have found themselves certainly in an “at risk” position. They have placed the city and neighborhood in a difficult situation as well.

As residents of Historic Oakwood, we have applied for several COAs for changes to our historic home. Had we made application for something as simple as a window or paint color change, received the COA and then been notified that an appeal had been filed, we would have never gone ahead until the issue was resolved through the process spelled out for all. We would not have put ourselves at risk for even a minor change – much less moved forward with a major building project.

This decision to go ahead in the face of an appeal is what has moved us collectively into this untenable position. There are opinions (expert and otherwise) on both sides as to whether the house is an appropriate addition to the inventory of houses in Historic Oakwood. This debate, while at times contentious, is very much needed as this decision will set precedent. We need to let the appeal, public debate and process work to the end decision as to the fate of the Euclid Street project.

The City of Raleigh certainly needs to look at some underlying issues. For starters, why issue a building permit when a decision on an approved COA is in the appeals process? It also needs to look at clarifying the Historic District guidelines to ensure the city is accurately representing the character of each individual historic district. It needs to look at the make-up of the RHDC to make sure the body reflects the broad spectrum of preservationist thought.

While these steps most certainly will not help in the resolution of the Euclid Street home issue, they might keep the city, the neighborhood and future prospective applicants from finding themselves in a similar situation.

Neighbors who live in Oakwood are still first and foremost neighbors and continue to come together to celebrate all the positive elements of living in a historic district such as Historic Oakwood. Oakwood will endure this latest controversy – as it has done many times over the course of its 140-plus-year history, and it will thrive and continue to be the wonderful, diverse and historic neighborhood that it most assuredly is today.

W. Darrow Johnson is a past president of the Society for the Preservation of Historic Oakwood . Jean Hagen-Johnson is retired from Wake County Human Services.

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