Tacoma commission rejects landmark de-listing request

Tacoma’s Landmarks Preservation Commission Wednesday rejected the request made by a homeowner to remove her 105-year-old home from the city’s register of historic places due to economic hardship.

The property owner, Diane Washburn, submitted letters in April and August to the commission requesting her home, located at 2803 N. Starr Street, be stripped of its landmark status. “I respectfully request to have my home at 2803 N. Starr Street taken off the historic register due to economic hardship,” Washburn wrote. “In addition to the enormous financial burden of owning this house, I was laid off six months ago and am collecting unemployment.”

Supporting documents provided by Washburn show she purchased the home for $390,000 in August 2007. Between September 2007 and Spring 2011, Washburn spent $8,500 on improvements that included floor sanding and refinishing; electrical wiring; ceiling insulation; duct insulation; electrical wiring; exterior paint; and interior paint. According to Washburn, the most recent assessment values the home at $254,800, and a refinance appraisal values the home at $315,000.

“I advertised to rent the house on Craigslist in September 2010 for $1,500 a month and had no offers,” Washburn wrote to the commission. “I would still have been $500 a month in the hole. I cannot rent this house for the amount needed to cover the mortgage payment, taxes, and insurance.”

In a staff report prepared for Wednesday’s meeting, Tacoma historic preservation officer Reuben McKnight noted that up until Aug. 1, 2011, there were no standards for de-listing a building from the city’s historic register. That changed on Aug. 1 when Tacoma City Council revised the municipal code. Under the new code (TMC 13.07.055), a property owner can claim economic hardship, catastrophic loss, or procedural error as causes for de-listing a historic property. To claim economic hardship, the owner must have applied for, and been denied, a Certificate of Approval and show that “the property is incapable of earning a reasonable return, regardless of whether that return represents the most profitable return possible; the property cannot be adapted for any other use, whether by the current owner or purchaser, which would result in a reasonable return; and efforts to find a purchaser interested in acquiring the property and preserving it have failed,” according to the municipal code.

During Wednesday’s Landmarks Preservation Commission meeting, commissioners couldn’t find a connection between the house’s landmark status and the homeowner’s claim of economic hardship.

“What I’m seeing is what is probably more involved is the market forces driving all the prices down on all the homes,” said Commissioner Bret Maddox.

Washburn told the commission that she purchased the home with the intention of only staying there two to three years, doing some cosmetic work, and moving back to a home she owns in Puyallup. “In the meantime, the economy has taken a dive and I can’t foresee ever selling my house.” Washburn said she recently received an estimate for repairs to her porch that totals approximately $20,000. “I just can’t maintain it.”

“If this house was [not on the historic register], those repairs would still need to be done,” Maddox replied.

Commissioner Ken House went line-by-line through the criteria and could not see a reason for de-listing the home. “There was no procedural error,” said House. “There hasn’t been a fire or earthquake. That leaves economic hardship. I’ve never heard or recalled the commission acting against a property owner because they weren’t maintaining a home on the register. I have some difficulty anticipating that happening in this case. I’m struggling to understand how being on the register changes the anticipated maintenance for this facility. It’s possible that because it’s on the register it could create value when it’s sold.”

House added that he did not see economic hardship being created by this house being on the historic register.

The commission could have voted to remove the building from the historic register, schedule a public hearing on the issue, request additional information, or deny the request. In a staff report prepared prior to the meeting, McKnight recommended scheduling a public hearing for Weds., Oct. 12, 2011.

“I’m baffled by the staff recommendation of holding a public hearing,” said House. “I’m curious what the public would bring to the discussion.”

Washburn argued that she originally requested her home be de-listed in April, prior to the municipal code changes in August, and should be “grandfathered in.”

Whether it was before the code change or after the code change, however, a compelling case would have still needed to be made by a property owner for the commission to make a recommendation to city council to de-list a landmark property. Whereas there have long been rules and guidelines for nominating a landmark, there weren’t rules or guidelines for de-listing a landmark. The new code approved last month provides a framework.

Washburn’s home is one of four homes known collectively as the “Croatian Starr Street Houses” added to the local register on Jan. 31, 2006. According to the original landmark nomination, the four homes located at 2721, 2723, 2801, and 2803 North Starr Street are historically significant because “they document the role Croatian immigrants played in the history of Tacoma” and “provide evidence of how the village links from the Old Country were important to the immigrants who came to the United States. They also document the economic contributions made by these people once they arrived.” Additionally, the nomination reports “The houses are also significant as vernacular residential dwellings designed by Carl August Darmer, one of Tacoma’s primary architects.”

The nomination, which was prepared by Caroline Gallacci and Katherine P. Ursich (who sold the home to Washburn), indicates the home at 2803 North Starr Street was built in 1906. The residence was home to the Carevich family — Vladimir (father); Franka (mother); Katie (daughter); Zori (daughter); Helen (daughter); and Vladimir Jr. (son) — between 1922 and 2004. Zori lived in the house for 82 years. The family made wine in the house’s small wine cellar.

In a letter dated Sept. 13, 2011, Historic Tacoma Board President Caroline T. Swope urged the commission to reject the de-listing request. “The house represents one of the few remaining Croatian homes in a neighborhood with strong ethnic and working class roots,” wrote Swope. “The process of placing this structure on the Tacoma Register of Historic Places was meticulous and deliberate. The original owner realized the house was worthy of recognition and protection, the Landmarks Commission and the Preservation Officer reviewed the application and determined it met city requirements. Our elected city officials ratified the agreement. The property has been granted a special tax valuation program to help offset any additional upkeep costs. This was a measured and deliberate process. The request to de-list a historic landmark, merely because property values are down in the midst of a national recession, does not appear to meet the requirements for a very serious and lasting action. The owner has not applied for nor been denied a Certificate of Approval. Staff has not been notified of an attempt to rent or sell the house that has failed exclusively due to the property’s landmark status. Historic Tacoma does not see any evidence that supports de-listing the property. Register listing is designed to protect Tacoma’s heritage for future generations, regardless of ownership changes. We hope that the Commission upholds the protected status of this landmark.”

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