Demo denied: BAR rejects Pooh's permit

Though two brick structures on Court Square have been joined since 1838, the Charlottesville Circuit Court has ordered them split.

But on August 19, the Board of Architectural Review voted 5-2 to deny Marybess "Pooh" Johnson the demolition permit she needs to comply with the court order.

"Thank heavens," says a relieved Johnson.

When Johnson bought 224 Court Square in 1992, it came with a covenant dating back 154 years that granted its original builder permission to share a wall with the neighboring building at 230 Court Square. But the permission was revocable, and in 1995, developer Gabe Silverman, 230's current owner, asked Johnson to detach her building from his.

The neighborly dispute went to court in 1998, and earlier this year, Judge Edward Hogshire found Johnson in contempt of court. On March 5, he ordered her to pay Silverman a $100-a-day fine as well as post a $200,000 bond until the buildings are divided.

Silverman also complains that Johnson's building encroaches on his property by as much as four inches to a foot. (She says it varies from three-quarters of an inch in front to seven inches in back, because buildings back then weren't plumb.)

Now that the BAR has denied Johnson's demolition permit, there's some confusion about what happens next. "Where it goes from there, I don't know," says Johnson.

She has 10 days to appeal the BAR decision to City Council, which she had no intention of doing until her attorney, John Dezio, informed her that she must. She plans to submit her half-hearted appeal by the August 29 deadline.

And if City Council denies Johnson's appeal, she must appeal that decision to Circuit Court, says Dezio– which could put her in front of Hogshire again, the judge who ordered the split.

BAR chairman Joan Fenton calls Johnson's application "one of the most bizarre things ever to come before the board."

And confusing. When the board voted 5-2 on a motion to deny demolition, Fenton voted against the motion. "I voted to not approve a denial," she explains.

Fenton was more concerned about a second request to tear down a brick parapet in back and replace it with hardiplank, a faux wood material. That motion was denied by the board unanimously.

Silverman claims that falling bricks pose a threat to his structure. To Fenton, it was "almost as if the wrong person was applying for the demolition permit" because Johnson was not the one saying there's a structural problem.

"Court Square is very important historically," says BAR board member Allison Ewing. "In reviewing the application and considering it relative to the guidelines for demolition, there was a very clear-cut case for not approving," she says. In fact, she reports that another board member said, "We probably haven't seen one as clear cut as this."

Johnson goes back to court September 15. If the order to remove her building from Silverman's stands and she separates the two buildings without BAR or City Council approval, she faces civil penalties up to twice the fair market value of the structure.

Of course, "The penalty is never equal the value of building because it's old," says city planner Mary Joy Scala.

Ben Ford, president of Preservation Piedmont, spoke against splitting the buildings at the BAR meeting, and he still hopes the litigants can settle their differences outside of court. Because of the suit, he says, a historic building is "suffering."