A town board will talk next month about the potential demolition of Hillsborough’s 175-year-old Colonial Inn.
The Historic District Commission met Monday night with the town’s Board of Commissioners for an update on the decade-long saga. The commission will consider owner Francis Henry’s request Aug. 6 to let crews remove boards from the building before he tears down the rest. He plans to leave a grassy lot at 153 W. King St.
Henry estimates the work would take at least six months.
The demolition hearing will be “quasi-judicial,” meaning the Historic District Commission can only consider expert evidence and testimony offered at the meeting in making a decision. The commission can delay the demolition request for a year to consider other options.
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The Colonial Inn has hosted community gatherings, illustrious guests and family celebrations since the mid-1800s. Henry, a Wilmington and Chapel Hill businessman, bought the property for $410,000 in a 2001 auction with plans to restore it.
The inn was granted statewide significance in 2003 by the State Historic Preservation Office and is included in the National Register of Historic Places as part of Hillsborough’s historic downtown. Over the last decade, however, the building has fallen into disrepair while Henry battled with the town over the necessary repairs and how he could use the property.
In 2008, the town cited Henry for violating demolition by neglect rules and gave him more than a year to make a dozen repairs. He finished roughly half before the town took him to court in 2010. His 2011 application to demolish part of the inn, replace it with a patio and make it a home was denied.
In 2012, Henry was ejected from the inn, where he was living, for housing code violations. He may only be on the property now to make repairs and still owes a $5,000 fine.
Henry has told officials he can’t afford to repair the inn, and although he has received offers for the building, no one has met his price, town officials said.
The town is moving carefully because all the options are difficult, town attorney Bob Hornik said. He reminded board members and the public that “we still live in America; we still have property rights.”
“We have to be careful about what we do and how we do it,” he said.
Town officials would like to buy and restore the property, but that’s not economically feasible, Hornik said. A private sale, while desirable, runs the risk of a new owner uninterested in preservation, he said.
The town could seize the property through eminent domain but must put it to a public use, he said. If the town pays for the repairs, the cost could run at least six figures and take years to recover, he said, but if the town does nothing, the building could become unsalvageable.
“It’s chock full of juicy issues, all of which make it a difficult situation to deal with, especially when the town’s goal all along has been the preservation of the property,” Hornik said. “There are things the town could do … but the end result of pursuing those paths may be exactly the opposite of what the goal is.”
Members of both boards asked several questions about the issue but did not discuss which direction the town might take. Commission Chairman Mark Bell suggested at least replacing the inn’s damaged roof to protect it from the elements. A lien on the property could help recover the cost, he said.