Elodie Reed, St. Albans Messenger
ST. ALBANS — With a favorable decision from the Vermont Environmental Court on Friday, the Connor Group this morning began demolishing the former Owl Club and historic John Smith home on Maiden Lane.
Neighbors Sue and Mark Prent and Peter Ford had appealed a decision from the city Development Review Board allowing for the demolition of the historic building, built in 1820, and its replacement with a new commercial building the Connor Group hopes to lease to medical professionals.
Judge Thomas Durkin rejected that appeal on Friday, finding the former Smith House to be beyond repair.
According to Mike Connor, the demolition will take several days to finish, though a good portion of the building was already in pieces by 8 a.m. today.
“It’s been a long, strange trip,” said Connor as he watched cranes move debris from the large building at the corner of Maiden Lane and Congress streets. He added that his company has had the permits to demolish the Owl Club put up a new office building since May 2013.
“It was tied up in senseless legal proceedings for a year and a half,” he said. “The judge agreed with us on every aspect of the case.”
Calling the Smith House “of undisputed historical significance,” Durkin nevertheless found it be too deteriorated to be preserved.
Smith was a member of Congress, a founder of the Central Vermont Railroad and, together with his sons owned much of the industry in St. Albans, including the foundry. A son and grandson both served as governors of Vermont.
“The condition of all buildings on the subject property is deplorable,” Durkin, who visited the building, found.
“Although the historical significance of the Smith House and its original owner cannot be understated, the undisputed evidence demonstrated that the Smith House suffered through at least 30 years of extensive neglect, resulting in collapses and rainwater, groundwater and mold infestation,” wrote Durkin. “It is not feasible for the Smith House or its components to be saved or further salvaged. The only present alternative, as devastating as it is to conclude, is to demolish the Smith House and allow for redevelopment of the site.”
The Connor Group presented evidence of extensive damage to all levels of the building from the foundation, which had been undermined by an intrusion of water so extensive it had carved a path into the ground, to the roof where a combination of rot and changes made during construction of the additions had undermined its integrity.
Durkin was particularly convinced by testimony regarding the infiltration of mold into the building, finding the only way to guarantee the building was mold-free was to demolish it.
“At the time of trial, the Smith House was beyond repair or habitability. Appellants’ desires to save an historic and once notable structure in their neighborhood are clearly sincere and even admirable, but there were unable to present any credible evidence that rehabilitation was in any way feasible,” wrote Durkin.
Appellants also had challenged the compatibility with other uses in the area and its impact on traffic. Durkin found that a medical building would fit in with the surrounding uses, which include an apartment building, public library, churches and a dental office, and Ace Hardware, as well as the Prents’ home.
Durkin also found that the proposed building would fit in with the surrounding neighborhood based, in part, on changes made to the building in response to criticism from the Design Advisory Board, which had sought changes to the exterior of the building to give it a more historic feel.
The appellants presented no expert testimony on the impact of the proposed development on traffic and parking on Maiden Lane, only their own observations.
The Connor Group’s traffic expert testified the impact of the project on traffic would be roughly equivalent to when the Owl Club, originally a young men’s club that eventually became a social group for anyone, was in operation, and Durkin found that testimony persuasive.
The Connor Group is intending to construct a 11,500-square-foot building with a parking lot accessed off of Congress Street. In addition, the Connor Group plans to construct a public sidewalk which will pass in front of both its building and the public library with new diagonal parking in front of both buildings.
In conjunction with the new parking, the city council previously approved a plan to change the direction of Maiden Lane to one-way south to north.
Connor said the new building project will begin as soon as possible. “We hope to have it done by the end of the year.”