Controversial modernist Oakwood house headed to court

03/03/2014 4:56 PM

03/03/2014 4:57 PM

City leaders are mulling their legal options after the Board of Adjustment yanked approval for a controversial modernist house in the Oakwood neighborhood – a move that could force the nearly complete home to be torn down.

Historic preservationists are urging Raleigh to appeal on behalf of the Raleigh Historic Development Commission – whose approval was overturned – and architect Louis Cherry, who’s building the home on Euclid Street. Allowing the Board of Adjustment ruling to stand, they say, would gut the power of historic guidelines and the commissions that enforce them throughout North Carolina.

“The situation is a real mess that has statewide implications,” said Preservation North Carolina president Myrick Howard, who helped write legislation governing historic districts in the 1980s. “A hostile neighbor with a lawyer shouldn’t be able to put a person’s project at jeopardy, after they have followed all the rules. If this case is not resolved, no one in their right minds will build in Oakwood, Boylan Heights, or any other local historic district.”

But Oakwood residents who oppose Cherry’s house say the commission didn’t follow its own guidelines designed to protect the historic neighborhoods from “incompatible” buildings, and they say the Board of Adjustment made the right call. They urged the city council not to appeal the decision to Wake County Superior Court.

“I am adamantly opposed to the city council spending taxpayer dollars on a fight that a private citizen, specifically Louis Cherry, should fund himself,” Oakwood resident Joy Weeber wrote to the council. “The city is looking at tens of thousands of dollars, plus city personnel time, to address an issue that impacts only a single-family residence and nothing more.”

The debate over the house – and whether modernism has a place amid houses dating from the late 19th century – has bitterly divided the Oakwood neighborhood, prompting heated chatter on email listservs and at community meetings.

Both sides have deluged the Raleigh City Council with emails. Former N.C. Department of Transportation Secretary Gene Conti is among the residents who support the Cherry house.

“It is a living district and should continue to allow new construction consistent with the RHDC guidelines,” Conti wrote to the council. “When a house receives RHDC approval, it should not be reversible just because some residents don’t like it.”

Gail Wiesner – who lives across the street from the Cherry house in a home she built in 2008 – has led the opposition, calling the design “garishly inappropriate,” towering over its neighbors in an area where new architectural styles haven’t been added in decades. At Wiesner’s request, city officials have ordered a “community conversation” on possible changes to the commission’s rules and membership.

For now, city leaders are waiting on the Board of Adjustment to finalize its ruling on March 10. “We would wait and see what the Board of Adjustment findings of fact were before we can make a reasonable recommendation” about an appeal, city attorney Tom McCormick said.

Until the Board of Adjustment ruling is formalized, Cherry says he’s continuing construction work – though McCormick has said he’s doing so “at his own risk.” After March 10, he’ll need a judge’s order to keep going on the house, which he says is 80 percent complete because he started last fall when the city issued permits.

“We still have a valid building permit, and ... we have not received any notices that we could not continue to build,” Cherry said.

If the appeal fails, Cherry will be forced to make major changes to the building design or tear the structure down. “It would be a travesty of justice if we suffer economic loss,” he said.

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