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Rogersville slum ordinance would force owners to repair dilapidated historic structures

Jeff Bobo • Updated Oct 12, 2017 at 7:54 AM

ROGERSVILLE — One of Rogersville’s most historic structures is also among its most neglected, but a slum clearance ordinance that was proposed to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen Tuesday would force the owner either to repair or demolish it.

The Powell Law Office on Washington Street was built by Samuel Powell, who arrived in Rogersville in 1805. He practiced law, served as a judge and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for the 1815-17 term.

Powell chose not to seek a second term and resumed his Rogersville law practice in 1819.

Sometime after his return he built what’s know today as the Powell Law Office, which still stands today, albeit in an advanced state of decay.

The two-story structure is located on Washington Street just west of the Depot Street intersection and kitty-corner from the Hawkins County Courthouse. Powell, who died in 1841, is buried next door in the old Presbyterian Church Cemetery.

Building Inspector Steve Nelson said the building was most recently a locksmith shop, but it’s been vacant and a slowly deteriorating eyesore for decades.

Nelson isn’t sure who owns it, but the Powell Law office would likely be among the first buildings affected by the proposed slum clearance ordinance, which was approved on the first of three required readings Tuesday by the BMA.

City Attorney Bill Phillips said the measure was recommended by MTAS (UT's Municipal Technical Advisory Service) as a means to force property owners to repair dilapidated historic structures if possible and demolish them if necessary.

“I’ve had a call or two about dilapidated structures in town, some of a historic nature, that need to be repaired,” Phillips said. “They’re falling down, even though they’re on the National Register of Historic Places. In consultation with MTAS, they suggested that we adopt what’s known as a ‘slum clearance ordinance.’ Basically it allows the building inspector, or any five citizens in town, or any authority in town, to note that a particular structure is in a dilapidated condition.”

The property owner is then cited into Municipal Court and given a hearing within 10 to 30 days. The building inspector will determine if the structure can be fixed or if it has to be destroyed. The fate of the structure will be one or the other.

“If it can be fixed for not more than half of its appraised value, then you can order it to be fixed,” Phillips said. “If it’s beyond repair, you can order it demolished. Then, if the property owner doesn’t want to do that, and that’s been the case in some of these instances, the city can do it themselves, charge it to the tax bill of the property owner, and collect it at the next tax year. That’s part of the property tax bill, so if they don’t pay, it can be sold to collect the taxes.”

Aside from the Powell Law Office, there are a handful of dilapidated residential properties outside of the historic district to which Nelson would like to apply the ordinance.

There’s a city code that allows the city to condemn dilapidated property, but the ordinance also gives the city the power to save historic structures if they aren’t too far gone.

At this time, however, the Powell Law Office is the only historic structure that has fallen into a severe state of disrepair.

“There have been some others in the past, but luckily the owner took care of them and we didn’t have to (condemn),” Nelson said. “I like to be proactive rather than reactionary. Most of the time when they’re that bad, we just condemn them. But when it’s got that much historic significance, you hate to just tear it down, because then it’s gone forever. You’d at least like to see it stabilized. We’re not going to tell owners they have to bring it back to its original grandeur, but they need to stabilize it before it falls down.”                                      

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