Johnson City board approves demolition of two Tree Streets houses

David Floyd • Oct 24, 2019 at 11:00 PM

A Johnson City board has approved the demolition of two historic but deteriorating houses in the Tree Streets neighborhood.

“They’ve fallen into a complete state of disrepair, unfortunately, due to neglect,” Jim Sullivan, the city’s chief building official, said Wednesday. He estimated the buildings have been vacant for a couple of decades.

The homes at 416 and 423 W. Maple St., owned by Bobby Bennett, date back to the early 1900s, according to a nomination form for the National Register of Historic Places, and are among more than 400 structures that contribute to the historic character of the Tree Streets neighborhood, which helped the community earn a place on the register in the 1990s.

The nomination form says the houses have a Queen Anne architectural style.

During a meeting of the Johnson City Historic Zoning Commission on Tuesday evening, city staff initially suggested the board delay its decision for 90 days to give the properties time to find a new owner on the open market.

Johnson City Senior Planner Matthew Manley told the board that staff has had a “trying time” to get the owner to comply with the city.

“The property was deemed uninhabitable early on,” he said. “Staff, especially because it was located in a historic district, we took a very hands-on approach with the owner to try to get them into compliance.”

Manley said a recent attempt by the owner to sell the properties fell through, but since that time, Manley said additional investors had expressed interest in buying the homes.

“It’s staff’s opinion that because these are contributing historic structures that the market is showing interest in salvaging that have not been given a proper opportunity to be put on the market to be sold that ... we allow an opportunity for this to be fully put on the market and see if investors can step in to solve this problem,” Manley told commissioners.

Taking into account how long the buildings have been in a state of disrepair and the likelihood of them being restored, commissioners voted 4-2 and 5-1 respectively to tear down the houses. Commissioner Wesley Forsythe voted in both cases against tearing down the structures. Chairman Nathan Brand voted against tearing down the home at 416 W. Maple.

"I have a really hard time of giving him 90 more days after 30 years,” said Commissioner Valda Jones, referencing how long neighbors say the building at 423 W. Maple has been vacant.

Sullivan said water intrusion has caused paint and plaster to fall off the homes’ walls. He said floors are caving in, pipes in the plumbing system need to be replaced, mechanical systems have degenerated and rodents have been tearing up walls and chewing on electrical wires.

Sullivan said it’s never the city’s goal to demolish a structure if it can be rehabilitated, but as a property deteriorates without remediation, it ends up being the city’s only option.

“We’d rather have a vacant lot than a building that is collapsing and causing an attractive nuisance for kids and bringing animals in,” he said.

During prior meetings, the Johnson City Board of Dwelling Standards had ordered Bennett to demolish the buildings, but because the homes are located in a historic district, the decision needed final input from the Historic Zoning Commission. Bennett has until Nov. 26 to appeal the Board of Dwelling Standards’ order to demolish 416 W. Maple to Chancery Court. The property at 423 W. Maple is no longer eligible for an appeal.

Sullivan said the demolition of 423 W. Maple could occur within a matter of weeks, but the city will need clearance from companies providing utilities to the property before they can move forward.

Contacted Thursday, Bennett mentioned that he has health problems.

“There’s issues, sure,” he said of the buildings, “but I can’t go into it right now.”

During the meeting Tuesday, neighbors living by the vacant houses urged the city to tear down the structures.

Kim Blevins, who lives at 422 W. Maple St., said she has been a resident of the Tree Streets neighborhood for about 40 years. The building at 423 W. Maple is visible from her front porch, and Blevins said she can see 416 W. Maple from her back porch.

"These two have been the blight of our block,” she said, “and I am please asking you to realize: We’ve dealt with it for 30 years.”