FAIRHOPE — The demolition of a century-old home owned by a former enslaved woman who was an early resident of Fairhope has some city officials considering regulations to protect other historic …
FAIRHOPE — The demolition of a century-old home owned by a former enslaved woman who was an early resident of Fairhope has some city officials considering regulations to protect other historic structures.
At a Fairhope City Council work session Monday, Dec. 5, Council President Jay Robinson said members of the city’s Historic Preservation Committee have discussed asking the council for an ordinance to protect historic structures.
He said the discussion came after the home of Nancy Lewis was torn down. Lewis bought property in the area in the 19th century. Her home was demolished to make way for a townhome development that was planned but then not constructed.
“The fact that this house was torn down was part of that discussion and whether or not there are better ways for the committee to go about preserving and protecting things like this,” Robinson said. “One of the comments was the idea of a historic preservation ordinance, which I don't know that this council has discussed before but was discussed at length by a prior council and was not passed for a variety of reasons.”
Robinson said he supports historic preservation but is also concerned that an ordinance could affect the rights of property owners by regulating how homes can be painted or renovated.
“I don't think Fairhope is the kind of place for everything's got to be the same color, everything's got to be the same design, because that's not really what Fairhope was created like, and I don't know that that fits, but you do have to have the ability to protect historic structures. I think that's the idea and I think that's the message, but I think it gets lost in the other things where you're trying to make things look the same,” Robinson said.
Councilman Corey Martin said efforts in Mobile have shown that historic structures can be protected without infringing on the rights of the owners.
“Mobile has had a historical preservation ordinance,” Martin said. “It's a much bigger metropolitan area. There’re other places that have historical preservation. But if you read the ordinance that they have, it's really clear cut how that would look and how that would work, everything would not have to be cookie-cutter.”
Martin said that since the Lewis house was demolished, the Alabama Historical Commission has recognized the site as historic. He said other historic properties in Fairhope have also been destroyed by developers.
“You get some outsider that's got an aerial view and drops the finger and says I want to buy that, tear that history down and somebody's whole life history's taken out,” Martin said. “I think that's significant. I think we could do a better job of preserving history that people before have left. I think it's important to have a memory of those situations and document where they are. If you don't know where you come from, you're not going to know where you're going. I think it's important to teach our children that.”
Robinson said many of the oldest homes in Fairhope are in locations that are desired by developers.
“If you bought that house for the location of it, which I think is happening a lot in our area because a lot of these historic or these older homes that might qualify as historic are located in pretty prime areas of town and so people are buying it for the location and then demolishing it to build something new and much more efficient,” Robinson said.
Eric Cortinas, city building official, said a building can be old without being considered historic. He said structures have to be registered with an official agency before they are historic and could be protected by an ordinance.
“A lot of the houses that people talk about as historic are nostalgic, but they're not necessarily historic,” Cortinas said. “If they are not a state, a federal state or county registry, that is not a historic house, and it doesn't qualify for any of those things.”
Gary Gover, a member of the city Historic Preservation Committee, said he would set up a workshop with council members and other city officials to discuss a possible ordinance or other ways to protect older Fairhope buildings.
“You can meet personally with experts from the Alabama Historical Commission and spend several hours putting together your hypotheticals, your concerns and everything to bring you fully up to speed to deal with this issue,” Gover told council members.