The 140-year old Houston House in New Castle County was part of an operating farm until about ten years ago. Developers Blenheim Management Company then acquired the house and pledged to preserve the building. However, in the ensuing years, the house had fallen into such disrepair that it now qualifies for demolition. New historic preservation legislation passed by the New Castle County Council aims to prevent future cases of this “demolition by neglect.”
The new ordinance requires owners of historic properties to better maintain those properties. When someone applies for a demolition permit for a historic structure, the Historic Review Board must first consider if the property can be adapted for reuse. The developer must also prove that the property did not deteriorate because of “intentional or gross negligence.” The county will also be required to conduct annual inspections of properties within historic districts to ensure they are up to the maintenance code.
Along with preventing maintenance by neglect, the bill also creates new incentives for developers to preserve historic buildings in their development plans. The ordinance stipulates that when a developer prepares a development plan for land that has a historic resource, the historic resource must be rezoned with the historic overlay before the plan is officially recorded with the county. Major developments will be required to submit a detailed maintenance and preservation plan for the resource. This preservation plan will be required to include a third-party estimate of the cost of restoration and short-term maintenance, coupled with a performance guarantee equal to 20 percent of that cost. Developers will also be required to fulfill maintenance obligations for historic properties before permits for 50 percent of the community’s dwelling units are issued.
The legislation also encourages adaptive reuse of historic properties. One section allows certain uses that are usually not permitted in the underlying zoning classification. This means that historic properties in residential zones with historic overlays, for example, could be used for retail.
Dee Durham, a Democrat who co-sponsored the bill, told Delaware Public Media that the ordinance, “covers a lot of territory in a broad way, but there’s always more to be done.”
The full text of the bill can be seen here.