A Bell Avenue homeowner has been cited by the city of Denton for six violations of conservation rules in the process of remodeling his historic house.
Terry Hess of Valley View bought the property at 1807 N. Bell Ave. in March and soon after began renovating the property, which included a swimming pool, a gazebo and an accessory building. The house is in the Bell Avenue Conservation District, which has additional rules meant to protect the integrity of the historic homes there.
Two of the city’s citations were for violating general construction rules, specifically failing to display the building permit and skipping an inspection. The remaining four citations were issued for making significant alterations to the home’s exterior without permission, including the porch, chimney, windows and foundation vents.
Each citation is a Class C misdemeanor and could carry up to a $500 fine.
A swimming pool contractor by trade, Hess recently hired a new contractor for the project and is hopeful that they can find a compromise with the city and the neighborhood.
“They’re saying I’m the bad guy in this,” Hess said, adding that he didn’t know the house was in a conservation district.
When he went to city offices for his construction permits, no one told him about the conservation rules, Hess said. He and his original contractor demolished an accessory building before Bell Avenue neighbors sounded the alarm about the work being done.
The matter has been before the city’s Historic Landmark Commission several times since May, with members asking the city staff why the commission was circumvented in the permitting process.
The City Council approved the Bell Avenue Conservation District in March 2005, the first time the city ever made such a designation and, at the time, one of a handful in Texas. Since then, the city also approved the Oak-Hickory Historic District, which has stricter rules than the district for Bell Avenue.
The district protects about 30 homes on Bell Avenue from University Drive to Sherman Drive with conservation rules to prevent the loss of the neighborhood’s architectural and visual identity. Although some houses date from the 1950s, many were built between 1900 and 1945.
The house Hess bought was built prior to modern air conditioning and used a cupola, an uncommon roof feature in this area, to vent air circulating in the house with the help of open windows and an attic fan.
One of the district’s newer homes, at 1819 Bell Ave., was designed by renowned Texas architect O’Neil Ford. The former home of Gertrude Gibson, it is now owned by Texas Woman’s University.
As part of the governance of the district, the city designated the Historic Landmark Commission, with its members appointed by the City Council, as the body to review work done on the homes there.
Property owners must apply for and receive a “certificate of appropriateness” before a number of actions, including constructing a new building or making an addition to an existing building, altering the exterior facade, removing any architectural feature, or constructing a fence, driveway or other permanent improvement.
Some certificate applications can be reviewed and approved by city staff, but many others must go before the commission.
The city’s planning director, Brian Lockley, told the commission in a memo last week that some of the alterations Hess and his contractor made to the home, including replacing the siding and the fence, were erroneously approved by the city staff.
In other words, even though the work violated conservation rules, the city attorney’s office has determined the city wouldn’t be successful in prosecuting them as violations.
Bell Avenue residents and commission members were keen to the problem early on, namely, that the city didn’t show the home in its database of the district. The planning department told the commission in May that it had fixed the error since then.
What isn’t clear is why work that appeared to violate the conservation rules continued afterward. The city issued stop work orders in April and again in June in an effort to resolve the situation.
Next-door neighbor Angie Stripling said it has been distressing to watch the transformation over the last several months, particularly the gutting of the house and the installation of vinyl windows, which greatly altered the home’s historic exterior.
She and her husband watched as crews worked on the interior of the house during the week, and then worked outside on the weekend, she said.
She asked the city to investigate whether construction debris — particularly whether it contained asbestos — was buried in the swimming pool that is now covered up.
Lockley told the commission during its meeting this month that property owners can bury their own waste on their own land if they comply with certain provisions in state law. As a result, the city hasn’t cited Hess for it, he said.
Hess appeared before the commission in August to ask for certificates of appropriateness for the work, many of them retroactive. But the commission refused, citing how little of the work on the exterior replaced old materials with new materials of like kind.
Hess said he’s hopeful he and the city and the neighborhood can find some kind of compromise. He didn’t want anyone at the city to lose their job over the matter, he said.
When the work is finished, he said he plans to donate the home to the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth so that TWU students may live there. The house may eventually become a nunnery, he said.
Stripling and her husband were interested in buying the property early on, but decided against it after they began adding up the restoration costs, she said.
The house contained a walnut hearth around the fireplace, similar to the hearth in her home, Stripling said. The back of the house also contained a library — the original owner was a TWU professor — with mahogany shelves and cornice boards. Some windows were stained glass.
The conservation district rules affect only the exterior of the houses on Bell Avenue. After seeing the house gutted, Stripling learned that someone had salvaged the mahogany and stained glass.
“Someone knew the value of those windows and that mahogany,” Stripling said. “There are people benefiting from that — something valuable that was ripped from our neighborhood.”
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.