ON ARCHITECTURE- Demo days: Crozet house lost as plan languishes

Travelers in the vicinity of Western Albemarle High School are seeing a transformed view this fall. Over the summer, one of the two small houses near the school's entrance along Route 250 was demolished to prepare the property for sale. The bulldozed building was best known recently as Ward's Small Engine Repair, with a cornucopia of tractors, lawn mowers, and other motor parts clustered outside around the red clapboard structure. Although possessed of a stylish stone chimney, the building had a general air of dilapidation– an appearance that intensified after the closing of the shop and the death of its proprietor, William "Billy" Ward, last year.

"Bill Ward rented it, and the County was pretty tough on him," remembers Dick Yancey, 69, whose family has owned property in the area for over four generations. "They didn't want to see junk mowers on the side of the road."

Apparently, property owner Jeffrey Sprouse didn't want to see the building at all. On June 5, he applied for a demolition permit, which was issued on July 10, according to county building code official Jay Schlothauer. However, when the Hook visited the site on June 26, the building was already gone. Although the permit wasn't issued until July, Schlothauer says the County actually approved the demo on June 26, the day the Hook visited.

"It's not uncommon for applicants to request a call when the permit is approved, ahead of the formality of issuing the permit," says Schlothauer. Still, we wondered why Sprouse was in such a hurry, and if perhaps he'd demolished the building before the permit was approved. When the Hook visited the site an unattended bulldozer was parked on the site, the debris was already gone, and a for sale sign on the lot was already posted. We also wondered if the same fate might await the other small house nearby. Several calls to Mr. Sprouse, who owns the Brownsville Market in Crozet, went unanswered.

According to county planner Margaret Maliszewski, it's not uncommon that buildings get demolished before their permits are approved, if property owners even bother to apply for one.  In an attempt to document historic structures before they go down, says Maliszewski, demo permits are being routed through her office.

"We go out and photograph the building, let the applicants know there are ways they can preserve it," she says. "Since we have no ordinance in place, it's important to have a photo record so we can keep track of what we're losing." Unfortunately, her office wasn't able to document the Ward's Small Engine Repair building because, she says, the building was gone when interns visited the site sometime in June.  

Surprisingly, no official historic records exist on the two properties, but Yancey suspects they were owned by freed slaves at one time. Yancey says his great-grandfather, who owned a lot of property in the area, was a slave owner before the Civil War. "But the Civil War ruined him," says Yancey. "And his former slaves probably bought land in the area."

Yancey remembers getting water as a child from the nearby well at what was then known as the home of a Jesse Jackson (not the famous civil rights leader), and he believes the original Jackson was one of his great-grandfather's slaves. Of course, Yancey says he can't verify any of this, relying for the most part on his own memories and the stories he was told. But some preservationists we spoke to believe he's right.

"Ward's was probably part of some free black community," says Steven Meeks– whose book, Crozet: A Pictorial History, chronicles many of the area's historic buildings– "some of which still exists behind the property." Meeks, who makes a habit of photographing old buildings in the area before they come down, regrets that he didn't get a chance to snap Ward's. Like many local preservationists, he's disappointed that a county so rich in history has no historic preservation code in place to protect or even officially document buildings like Ward's.

"Unfortunately, there's no mechanism in the county to red-flag this stuff," preservationist Aaron Wunsch told the Hook earlier this year when similar vintage buildings were demolished to expand the Dunlora development. "You're largely depending on the goodwill of property owners to save such places, because the county has no preservation code," says Wunsch. "Eighteenth-century buildings have been taken down around the County in the last year, and nobody has noticed."

According to Yancey, the historic carnage has been going on a lot longer than that. "I was here when Albemarle was poor," he says. "I've seen a lot of buildings disappear in my time."

In 2000, the Board of Supervisors adopted Albmarle's Historic Preservation Plan after five years of planning. They also appointed a historic preservation committee and hired a planner to implement it. The goal was to recognize and protect historic buildings and sites in the rural areas by creating stronger preservation codes and offering incentives to property owners to either record or preserve historic structures. 

In fact, one of the first things the plan called for was the historic and photographic documentation of buildings before they were demolished. 

Six years later, buildings like Ward's remain as unprotected and unrecorded as they were when Dick Yancey used to get water from the well of the old Jesse Jackson House.

The problem, Maliszewski admits, is that so little is required for a demo permit– and the penalty for not obtaining one is so small– that many people don't even bother. Indeed, when we made a call to a clerk in the zoning department to ask about obtaining a demo permit, she told us all we needed were two copies of the plat and a letter from the power and gas companies saying the utilities had been cut off. 

The current penalty for failure to obtain a demo permit is $100 for the first violation and $150 for each additional violation, with a $3,000 cap– not exactly a reason for property owners to sweat. 

However, the preservation plan recommends that legislation be passed that would allow the county to impose "a civil penalty in the amount of the replacement value of the building as a historic resource, rather than its immediate value to the owner" for removing a historic building without permission. The plan also recommends legislation that would allow the county to give direct financial assistance to property owners as an incentive to preserve historic structures. 

Again, without the will to implement such legislation, the aging preservation plan is nothing but a list of nice ideas, a fact that frustrates many preservationists. 

"It seems like people don't want the historic preservation code," says preservationist Jennifer Hallock, who also sits on the county preservation committee. "And members of the Board of Supervisors don't seem particularly pro-preservation." 

Indeed, just this summer the BOS approved the demolition of the Mount Calvary Church on Morgantown Road in Ivy, a revered structure built in 1890, because the congregation wanted more space and considered the structure unsafe for elderly churchgoers. Preservation Piedmont made an effort to persuade the congregation to save the old church, to no avail.

Hallock believes the Preservation Plan has stalled in part because the county is so sharply divided between pro-preservationists and property rights advocates. She also admits it's harder to keep track of historic properties in the county than in the city.

"Because so few people see these properties, as opposed to the ones you see everyday in the city," she says, "it's difficult to decide what level of protection is called for."

 However, Hallock says she doesn't understand the resistance to documentation. "Make it an honorary thing," she suggests, "so we can at least document these places."

Hallock is also leading an effort to make Southern Albemarle a historic district, something she believes might be a first step toward greater protection. In fact, Hallock's firm, Arcadia Preservation, has mapped out a Southern Albemarle Rural Historic District that was recently approved by the Department of Historic Resources in Richmond. 

Hallock says the proposed district, which includes Monticello, received the highest historic rating in Virginia, based on archeological significance, architecture, broad patterns of history, and important people. The district covers 87,000 acres between the Rivanna and James, from Milton to Scottsville, and includes about 1600 properties.

"While there are no restrictions associated with it," says Hallock, "it does give people a sense of history and honor and it does give tax incentives for rehabilitation of old buildings. The thinking is that it might be worth fixing up a building for reuse rather than tearing it down." 

Meanwhile, the county's Preservation Plan sits waiting to be implemented. That may be a long-time coming, given the make-up of the preservation committee, which includes several real estate developers and property-rights advocates, and the fact that after six years the Supervisors have done little to give the plan the teeth it asked for.

This is the surviving near-twin...

...of the demolished Ward's Small Engine Repair, which was taken down June.


1 comment

I am very interested in obtaining Steven G. Meeks' Crozet Pictorial Directory for my 85-year-old father. He lived in Crozet for a few years (mid to late 1920s) as a child and was hit by a truck and almost died directly in front of the general store/undertaking business that is photographed in the book. (His father was the undertaker at the time.) I know about this page of the book because I visited that building this week while I was nearby traveling for business (it is now a Mexican restaurant) and they had a copy of the book. Unfortunately, the picture of the building where the undertaking business was housed shows the corner of an attached building that is no longer there. As I read that Mr. Meeks takes pictures of old buildings, I am wondering if he might have other photographs in that book that show the formerly attached building still standing. I would be so happy to be able to get in touch directly with Mr. Meeks. Sincerely, Sherry Ayres