ST. ALBANS — The fate of the former Owl Club and Smith Homestead was once again before the Vermont Environmental Court Thursday.
Testimony focused on the economic feasibility of preserving the Smith House, the brick portion of the Owl Club built in 1820 by John Smith, an industrialist and politician who co-founded two railroads and whose children and grandchildren played a key role in the history of St. Albans, the state of Vermont and the railroad industry.
The Connor Group, which owns the building on Maiden Lane, is seeking to prove that rehabilitating the brick house is not feasible. The Connors received a permit for the demolition from the St. Albans City Development Review Board (DRB) earlier this year.
That permit was appealed by Sue and Mark Prent, and Peter Ford, who maintain that all of the requirements of the city’s ordinance regarding demolition were not met.
The Prents and Ford (the appellants) are seeking an extension of a temporary stay of demolition issued by Judge Thomas Durkin in September. They want demolition stayed until the legal process is complete.
In order to receive a stay, the appellants must show a strong likelihood of success on the merits.
After roughly five hours of testimony, the appellant’s attorney, Paul Gillies, rested his case and asked that the permit be remanded to the DRB on the grounds that the Connor Group had not met every provision of section 706 of the St. Albans City ordinances.
Sandy Fead, attorney for the Connors, argued such a remand was unnecessary. “This is a de novo review. Your honor sits as the DRB,” said Fead.
“It is not clear to me that the DRB examined in detail each and every component of section 706 or required of the applicant each and every component,” said Durkin.
Nevertheless, Durkin agreed with Fead that a remand to the DRB is unnecessary because the court will either issue or deny a new permit. “It almost seems like there’s still not a full application,” said Durkin, who urged the Connor Group to review all of the provisions of the ordinance and provide satisfaction of every provision.
During the DRB process the Connors did not provide an estimate of the cost of the restoration, but simply asserted that restoration costs were so high the restored property would have a rental cost well in excess of typical rents in St. Albans. A cost estimate for restoration is one requirement of the demolition ordinance.
The court has now received a highly detailed estimate of the restoration costs. Durkin asked Sue Prent during her testimony whether in her view Connor had satisfied the ordinance requirements by providing the costs.
Prent said they had not. “It would not satisfy requirements about documenting the historic building and its significance and preserving the germ of the historic building in the new construction,” she said.
During his testimony Mike Connor acknowledged his company had not provided an assessment or documentation of the building’s historic elements or importance.
In his questioning of Prent, Durkin mentioned previous restoration work done by Connor Contracting, which has worked on several historic preservation projects in the area. However, the Connors have said they do not have the means or desire to rehabilitate this property, Durkin said.
Prent replied there are two issues: what happens to the historic building and whether new construction incorporates historic elements that would reflect the old house.
“I’m saying there is another path. There is a compromise path that was never entertained,” said Prent, referring to new construction that would incorporate historic elements.
Fead asked the court to deny the motion for a stay on demolition on the grounds that the appellants had not shown a likelihood of success on the merits because statutes require an assessment of the entire structure, not just a portion of it. “As soon as they conceded 81 percent of the building needed to be torn down that was the end of the story,” said Fead.
During cross-examination by Fead, Prent was asked about the additions made by the Owl Club after its purchase of the building in the early 19th century. “They obviously are beyond repair,” Prent said. “They don’t relate to its earlier and most historic use.”
Fead also argued the appellants have “failed utterly to show they have any chance of showing economic feasibility.”
Durkin agreed the legal standard appellants must meet to receive a stay is a high one. However, he added it is still up to the applicant to comply with all provisions of the ordinance.
If the applicants failed to fully comply with the city ordinance regarding demolition of historic structures then the appellants may have shown a likelihood of success, Durkin suggested.
One of the components of the city’s demolition ordinance for historic buildings is the economic feasibility of restoration. The Connors are arguing restoration costs are so high the restored building would not be competitively priced commercial rental property.
The appellants presented an engineer, Robert Neeld, hired jointly by the City of St. Albans and the Preservation Trust of Vermont to examine the building.
Neeld testified he was hired to examine the building and provide “an order of magnitude” estimate of restoration costs. He asked professional estimator Henry Erickson to provide the estimate in conjunction with Neeld and architect Thomas Keefe.
Because Erickson was not present to talk about his estimate, information on that was only admissible to the extent Neeld used it to form his opinion.
Much of the day’s testimony involved Fead walking Neeld through every element of a restoration project at the Smith House to determine what he examined and considered and what he did not.
Neeld’s report assumed there would be a modern addition of 8,000 to 10,000 square feet. He further assumed the heating system, an elevator and a stairwell needed to make the building handicapped accessible would be part of the addition.
“The way we looked at this project, a larger addition has got to be used to minimize the average costs between the renovation and the addition,” Neeld testified.
Fead elicited testimony from Neeld that his estimate of restoration cost of $200 to $300 per square foot had not included the cost of lead paint or mold removal and abatement, demolishing the additions or rehabilitating the porch. Nor did the estimate include purchasing costs, carrying costs for the construction period or an estimate of how long the project would take.
Neeld testified he does approximately 20 restoration projects per year, in addition to assessing other buildings for restoration. In at least one instance, he has advised the owners the building is not salvageable.
Durkin asked Neeld whether on a scale of one to 10, with one being a building requiring very little work and 10 being a building with nothing remaining but a shell, where the Smith House would fall.
Neeld replied it is an eight. “It’s right up there,” he said. “There’s a lot of work that needs to be done… This is a labor intensive, highly detailed project.”
Asked if he has seen other buildings where a large addition was added to a historic building, Neeld said he had. He spoke specifically of the Carriage House at Champlain College where the college retained a historic residence. “They felt it was keeping in character of the neighborhood to keep the residence on the front end and they got what they wanted (new construction) in the back,” he said.
“My greatest concern is whether the mold that has permeated this structure over years … acts as a prohibition of rehabilitation,” Durkin said.
Chris Crothers, whose firm handles the removal of mold, lead paint and asbestos from buildings testified about the cost of removing the mold and paint from the Smith House.
He put the cost of removing the lead paint from the exterior of the building in order to repair the brick at $48,000 with required follow-up testing costing an additional $3,300.
Crothers did not do an estimate of removing the lead paint from the interior since that would likely be done at the same time as mold abatement.
In order to remove all the mold from the building all of the finishes would need to be removed. The wall studs would then have to be sanded and sealed with anti-microbial paint, Crothers explained.
To prevent a return of the mold a dehumidification system would have to be installed in the basement at a cost of at least $8,000, he said.
Crothers also described in detail the equipment needed for removal and the steps needed to be taken by all workers at the site until the mold had been removed, including a two-stage decontamination area and the wearing of protective suits and respirators.
Not including the dehumidifier, Crothers put the cost of mold removal and needed testing at around $60,000.
Asked by Fead to rate mold contamination on a scale of 1 to 10, Crothers rated the Smith House a 9 and the difficulty of mold removal a 9.5.
The hearing will resume at 8:30 a.m. Monday at the Environmental Courthouse in Berlin.
Expected to testify are Cliff Collins of Ruggiano Engineering, Mike Connor and Fred Connor.