During the board’s work session Tuesday, Chairman Buzz Ahrens announced a draft of a historic preservation ordinance aimed at discouraging demolition of some structures would be up for consideration at the next meeting Feb. 4.
Commissioners discussed that the ordinance would require property owners to apply for permits for demolition or certain exterior changes to structures the county has deemed historic with the help of the Cherokee County Historical Society.
The catalyst for the ordinance — and a 90-day ban on demolition of 24 different structures enacted in mid-November — was a Macon-based developer’s potential plans to tear down the historic Bell’s Store on Highway 20 to build a gas station. But commissioners have said the ordinance likely wouldn’t be effective against those plans, because the developer, Jim Rollins, had already started the process of buying the property.
Instead, commissioners have said the goal was to help protect others like Bell’s Store, a former general store built in 1935 in the Buffington community, although the county could only delay such demolitions, not stop them.
Jeff Watkins, Cherokee County director of planning and land use, explained to the board Tuesday the potential ordinance would be patterned off the state of Georgia’s similar regulations. It would also draw inspiration from ordinances in other jurisdictions, such as Cobb County.
Within the ordinance, a historic preservation board would be formed to consider property owners’ requests. If the county was opposed to the property owners’ plans, delays could slow such projects, to give time for alternatives to be found.
Since the news of Rollins’ plans to tear down Bell’s Store, now a produce market, many have spoken out in opposition and encouraged the county’s efforts to try to save the store, while others have questioned if the property owners were getting a say.
In a poll on the Cherokee Tribune’s website, 67 percent of readers said they were supportive of the county’s efforts to discourage Rollins from tearing down the Buffington community landmark. Twenty-four percent, though, said they didn’t support the board of commissioners’ efforts. The remaining 7 percent had no opinion.
Some in Cherokee County, like Patti Martin, one of the owners of Free Home Traditions, object to what commissioners have been working on.
Free Home Traditions, a gift shop, which is for sale, was one of the 24 historic structures that was subject to the 90-day ban on demolitions, although no one at the business was asked how they felt before commissioners voted, Martin said Wednesday.
“I feel that it’s wrong that the county government can now say, ‘Oh, we like looking at that’ (and intervene),” Martin said. “It’s basically government control of privately owned land.”
Martin said her objections are not only on principle, but also because she wants the potential buyer to be able to do what they want with the property without delays — even if that means tearing down the building.
“It definitely has an impact on the value of the property because it greatly limits the use,” she said. “If the county wants to preserve the property, they need to buy (it).”
The commission chairman said he understands the frustration, and he wants to try to figure out how the county could give property owners a say in the process and perhaps an option to opt out of being on the list.
“We haven’t gotten through all that (yet),” Ahrens said Wednesday. “We’re trying to get the basic intent clear.”
The intent, Ahrens said, wasn’t to step on property owners’ rights, but just to give time for an alternative to demolitions.
Martin said she understands the building is part of Cherokee County history, but much of why it is admired today is because of the efforts of her and her family. In 2013, the company was awarded by the Cherokee County Historical Society for outstanding work in preservation.
In the case of Bell’s Store, the developer said the board of commissioners have been accurate that not much can be done to stop the demolition.
“If they’re trying to do it after the fact, I think they’re too late,” Rollins said Wednesday, adding the building has to be torn down because it sits in state right of way.
Rollins has, however, offered to let Lisa Meyer, who runs the produce market, stay there until June, while she looks for another space. He has also offered to give the building to Meyer, the historical society, or basically anyone else, so long as they will move it off the property.
Stefanie Joyner, executive director of the Cherokee County Historical Society, said the organization is still considering if moving the building is something is an option.
“We are still talking to a nearby property owner about moving the building onto their land,” Joyner said Wednesday. “There are lots of details to finalize before this can happen — zoning, access, sewer (and) septic, and especially the cost to move the building and set up the new foundation. Once we get a handle on the cost to move the building, we can move forward to decide if it is feasible and who would pay the expenses.”
Rollins said if Bell’s Store isn’t moved by July, it will be torn down. If Meyer moves out before the end of June, it could bite the dust even sooner, he added.