Demolition review eyed for historic Wheeling structures

WHEELING — Wheeling city officials are moving forward with a measure that will make sure a proper review is done before any of the city’s historic structures meet the wrecking ball.

Members of the Development Committee of Wheeling City Council recently recommended a proposed ordinance establishing a demolition review process be forwarded to city council for consideration.

“This is something that’s probably three or four years in the works now,” Mayor Glenn Elliott said.

Councilman Ty Thorngate is the representative of Wheeling City Council who serves on the Historic Landmarks Commission. He, commission Chairman C.J. Kaiser and the other commission members were applauded for their continued work to move this legislation forward, along with former Councilman Brian Wilson, who the mayor said helped initiate the conversation.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Thorngate said, noting the importance that the city adopt this ordinance.

“Wheeling is one of a number of cities that have not had this process in place for obtaining a demolition permit,” Kaiser explained. “That basically allows someone to come in at 4:30 p.m. in the afternoon, get a demolition permit and tear something down before the newspaper is written that night, without any notice and without anybody understanding.”

A number of historic districts have design review procedures in place or in the works, Kaiser noted. The design review focuses on changes to structures within these districts, yet officials indicated that having a structure razed is something that simply falls through the cracks without a voice from anyone else aside from the owner of the property being demolished.

“What we have found in the Landmarks Commission is that if you are going to make a dramatic change in the neighborhood, if you allow one person to come in and tear a house down after a design review has been adopted by that community … in many instances, it’s like losing a tooth in the middle of your smile,” Kaiser said.

The demolition ordinance only applies to historic districts and what are referred to as “contributing structures” in historic districts.

“For example, the downtown business district is a historic district, but there are many structures there that are not considered to be ‘contributing,'” Kaiser said, explaining that outside of historic districts, structures that have an historic designation — such as being placed on the National Registry of Historic Places — would be subject to the review, as well.

It is very easy for the administration to determine whether a structure is “contributing” or “non-contributing, because any particular structure will be listed as such on the historic district application,” Kaiser said.

The proposed ordinance has a provision that makes exceptions for safety issues and concerns with respect to a structure, unless those concerns are abated. For example, an insurance company may deem a structure repairable after a fire, and in that case, the structure would still have to go through the demolition ordinance if the property owner wanted to tear it down. There are other stipulations that allow for demolition of historic structures when there is no other realistic option.

“It’s simply to allow a process where neighbors can have the opportunity to be heard as to whether or not there are any reasonable alternatives for demolition,” Kaiser said. “And the person who is tearing down a property has to fully disclose what their plans are for the property.”

Plans are disclosed to the neighbors and to the design review district, and they can have their opportunity to be heard at a public hearing before the Historic Landmarks Commission before a decision is made on the demolition application.

There will be an appeals process to the city council, Kaiser said, who added that applicants can also appeal the decision to circuit court, according to the proposed ordinance.

“I know there are some folks who will see this as an infringement on private property rights,” the mayor said. “But when you look at historic districts and the way they are set up, in my opinion, every contributing structure in that district is part of your property rights. If you buy into that district, you’re buying what’s there.”

This simply sets up a process to protect property rights for those who have invested into the historic district.

“This is not a demolition prohibition,” Elliott said. “It gives people at least a chance to come to the table and say ‘here’s an alternative to demolition’ is actually protecting property rights of those who have bought into those districts.”

Kaiser added that the ordinance will allow historic districts to help maintain their property values and to prevent one person from coming into a district to “ruin it for everyone else.”

Councilman Ben Seidler noted that Wheeling Island and North Wheeling are designated as historic districts, yet have several homes that need to be razed because of years of neglect. Kaiser noted that when a structure ends up on the city’s raze or repair list, they are typically in such disrepair that the property would likely be deemed a safety exception and be approved for demolition upon review. The Historic Landmarks Commission reviews all of the buildings on the city’s raze or repair list to see if any historic structures would apply to the rule, Kaiser noted.

Members of the Development Committee of Council agreed to forward the proposed demolition review ordinance to city council for consideration during a future meeting.


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