Disrepair of historic homes troubles HPC | AspenTimes.com

Disrepair of historic homes troubles HPC

Janet Urquhart

A few of Aspen’s historic homes are falling into a state of disrepair that worries the city’s Historic Preservation Commission.

The HPC is struggling with how to sensitively approach homeowners who need to address maintenance of their buildings, as required by the city code, without coming off as the heavy hand of government telling people what they can and can’t do with their property.

The HPC has endured plenty of that kind of criticism of late already, noted Amy Guthrie, Aspen’s historic preservation officer, in a discussion with the commission last week. “This could be just one more thing that opens us up to criticism,” she warned.

Nonetheless, there are six or seven properties in the city where “deferred maintenance” has become a concern, she said.

That doesn’t necessarily mean a house is about to fall down, but that, for example, a fresh coat of paint is needed to prevent historic wooden detailing from rotting beyond the point of preservation.

“A 100-year-old porch column that will have to be replaced – that’s not what we want to see happen,” she said.

The city code contains minimum maintenance requirements for historic structures to prevent “demolition by neglect.” The code requires “reasonable care, maintenance and upkeep” appropriate for the preservation and protection of buildings, but doesn’t offer any detail on what level of disrepair is unacceptable.

“It says you can’t do it, but it doesn’t say what level of deterioration is demolition by neglect,” Guthrie said.

The city’s historic preservation code does not allow property owners to demolish historic structures. The maintenance rules are in place to prevent homeowners from, in effect, demolishing what they can’t raze with a bulldozer by letting the structure fall apart. That strategy is not, however, necessarily being employed by the owners of the homes that are of concern currently, Guthrie said.

“I don’t believe that, in most of these cases, people are letting them deteriorate just to get around us,” she said.

The code does allow the HPC to file a petition with the city’s chief building inspector to order needed upkeep of a structure, but the city has never taken such enforcement action, Guthrie said.

A new, detailed list of proposed procedures to follow in an enforcement action was distributed for HPC review during the discussion.

Financial considerations may prevent some property owners from seeking costly repairs, noted Guthrie, but the city does offer a $10,000 no-interest loan for needed work on historic structures. Property owners have 10 years to pay the money back at $1,000 per year.

Several individuals have sought the loan on their own, Guthrie said.

“We’re talking about a lot of property that’s worth a million bucks plus,” said HPC member Jeffrey Halferty, questioning the excuse of financial hardship. “This is a tricky one, especially in our community.”

“Ultimately, we’re in a place where land is worth more than the building,” added HPC member Lisa Markalunas. “I don’t want to put people in the position where they accomplish their goals by letting the historic resource go.”

The commission agreed to seek advice from an historical consultant currently working with the city on preservation issues and to explore how other communities handle such situations.

“I think we need to model ourselves after a program that’s working,” Guthrie said.

“At some point, we’re going to have to stop worrying about offending someone and just do something about it.”

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