For 20 years, Raleigh’s older neighborhoods have been prime spots. Polished steps and tidy lawns are replacing crumbling siding and weed-infested yards as builders tear down older homes and replace them with new, usually much larger homes. Many neighbors welcome new development. Property values soar.
But some tear-downs concern neighbors.
Patrick Martin has lived in North Hills for 26 years. Now retired, Martin is the chairperson for the Midtown Citizens Advisory Council. “(The original builders) built nice homes, but they left the lots larger. So it gives this area a nice, spacious, green lawn, big oak tree character. But some developers now, they wipe out every tree and they squeeze as much square footage as they can. Now that kind of tear-down and rebuild — nobody likes,” Martin said.
Martin’s concerns are echoed across the city. In North Hills, Dixon Drive residents were disturbed when a builder placed houses just 20 feet from the edge of the street. In the Ridgewood neighborhood, off Wade Avenue, a builder demolished a house and divided the lot. The result? Two smaller houses that sell for $800,000 each.
Other developments questioned by neighbors: Builders squeezed six homes onto four lots and wiped out old trees. One builder created an L-shaped lot to reach the minimum lot size that the city requires when most of the neighborhood rests on rectangular lots.
What can neighbors do to preserve the features of their neighborhoods that made them so beloved in the first place? Here are some options:
1. Preservation easements. Individual homeowners who want to protect their homes from demolition or major structural changes should consider a preservation easement. Preservation easements are legal contracts between a property owner and a local preservation society, such as Preservation NC or Capital Area Preservation. Roughly 75 homes in Wake County are under preservation easement.
This solution does not involve city government and can take as little as two weeks. The benefit of a preservation easement is that the lot cannot be demolished or divided, even after the owner sells the property. Homeowners can renovate the house and add additions after getting approval from a preservation society. Typically, the seller or local preservation society will inform interested buyers about the easement, since it is attached to the deed. A lawyer can also find the easement through a deed search. The downside of this option is that preservation easements only apply to a single property at a time, and generally only preserve properties that are historically or architecturally significant.
2. Neighborhood conservation overlay districts. These districts protect neighborhoods by regulating lot size, distance from the street, building height, and other general characteristics. It does not place restrictions on more specific details, such as architectural style. Overlay districts cannot protect a home from future demolition, but they can place restrictions on new construction. Some Raleigh neighborhoods with overlay districts include Mordecai, North Hills and Five Points East.
Overlay districts start when neighbors file a petition with the city council. The city analyzes the neighborhood to determine what its main architectural characteristics are, and what regulations might help preserve neighborhood character. The process requires approval from City Council and signatures from most of the neighbors.
3. Historic overlay districts. Some areas of Raleigh, such as Boylan Heights or Oakwood, are historic overlay districts. Durham has several historic districts, including the Fayetteville Street Historic District. Chapel Hill has three local historic districts: Cameron-McCauley, Gimghoul, and Franklin-Rosemary, which overlaps with East Franklin and East Rosemary streets.
Historic districts are associated with events, activities or individuals who played an important part in a community’s past. They regulate specific details such as architectural style, building materials, landscaping, and exterior color. These homes often qualify for the National Register of Historic Places, which is determined by the National Park Service. A home on the National Register is eligible for federal grants that fund the rehabilitation of a property and various tax credits.
Houses in a historic overlay district can still be demolished, but local governments — and the state government, depending on the significance of the property — can place a 365-day delay on demolition to try to preserve the home. Raleigh’s local design committee must approve renovations or additions to a house, while city staff oversees minor changes like installing doors or outdoor lights.
4. Let individual homeowners decide. Builder Greg Paul says he understands neighbors’ desire to preserve the traditional characteristics of their neighborhoods, but worries that city ordinances restrict the individual homeowner’s freedom. “I think it’s always a good idea to be respectful of your neighbors, but, my feeling is, that’s their property, their porch, their tree ... People generally want new additions to match the neighborhood. Why legislate when that’s what they’re going to do?” Paul said.
In historic overlay districts, for example, actions such as installing skylights, replacing windows and even pruning hedges require at least a brief review from city staff. Some residents might not welcome the oversight of city government.
Some change is inevitable, and it would be short-sighted to turn away builders and developers from investing in Raleigh. Tear-downs can lift a neighborhood, especially when builders create homes that fit in with their surroundings. The key is balancing neighbors’ concerns with the desires of new homeowners, a problem that may not have an easy answer.