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Would Chapel Hill home addition mar late UNC botanist’s historic neighborhood?

The Chapel Hill Historic District Commission continues reviewing plans for 306 N. Boundary St. that used to be part of the Dr. William Coker estate at 609 North St., known as “the Rocks” because of the rock formations on the lot.
The Chapel Hill Historic District Commission continues reviewing plans for 306 N. Boundary St. that used to be part of the Dr. William Coker estate at 609 North St., known as “the Rocks” because of the rock formations on the lot.

After taking up the matter at three meetings, the Chapel Hill Historic District Commission still was not ready Tuesday night to take a vote on a two-car garage.

Commission member James Locke was especially interested in John Nolen’s possible involvement in the Dr. William Coker estate on Boundary Street. The nationally known city planner, who worked on projects in Charlotte and Asheville, developed a master plan for the UNC-Chapel Hill campus that was never implemented.

“If John Nolen is involved,” Locke said arguing for delaying the vote, “then we might have to take a second look at this whole idea in general because if John Nolen is involved then it might be of national significance. … If Coker was involved with John Nolen then that is something this commission should know.”

The property in question is 306 N. Boundary St., owned by Stephen Cumbie and Druscilla French, who bought it in September. It is in the Franklin-Rosemary Historic District and used to be part of the Dr. William Coker estate at 609 North St., known as “the Rocks” because of the rock formations on the lot. Coker was a botany professor after whom the Coker Arboretum, part of the North Carolina Botanical Garden, is named.

Woodrow Burns and his wife Catharine Burns own the property at 609 North St. Woodrow Burns is a member of the commission and recused himself from proceedings in order to testify against the addition.

Coker connection

Catharine Burns also testified as an expert witness on historic architecture, and it was through her testimony that the possible connection to Nolen arose. When Locke asked what evidence she had that Coker and Nolen worked on the property together, she said there was correspondence between them proving a connection.

When Coker’s wife, Louise Venable Coker, died in 1983, the family gave the property to UNC on the condition that the house and surrounding property be preserved. The university could not find a suitable use for the property and the Burns bought it in 1986. At that time, a quarter-acre parcel along North Street covering the rock formations was preserved as a park named for Louise Coker.

“This is a historic property,” Woodrow Burns said, “and I have spent 30 years restoring this property. … I just want to ensure that this property that [Coker] left us needs to be protected.”

This proposed addition first came before the commission in January, and the property owners originally wanted to build a three-car garage and have scaled back their plans. The structure, Cumbie said, would also include a small apartment that could house a caretaker for him or his wife. Their house was built in 1991 and is not historic. Plans call for six trees to be removed for the garage.

Since the February commission meeting, the site of the garage has been adjusted to save two pine trees the commission was concerned about.

Cumbie said he had counted eight or nine visible garage additions in his neighborhood.

But Catharine Burns was not convinced.

“I think if you looked at the garages that had residences above them, I think you’d find that they were recent, that they were ill advised or made because members of the commission did what they should not do and looked at the circumstances of the applicant,” she said. “So they were not applying due process where they treated every single application strictly in terms of the character of the site and does it fit the guidelines.”

“We’re doing everything we can,” Cumbie said, “with our proposal, to maintain the legacy of what remains of the Coker legacy on our property.”

Commission members said every time they hold a meeting on the subject they get more information to consider, which has made it difficult to make a decision. They discussed not holding a public hearing when they take up the matter again at their April 9 but did not rule it out.

Matt Goad: mattgoad@gmail.com
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