ROGERSVILLE — The city may soon be forced to enforce its new Slum Ordinance against itself, thanks to a proposed gifting of the town’s oldest building by an owner who doesn’t want to pay for repairs to get it up to code.
On Tuesday evening, the Rogersville Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted unanimously to accept the gift of the Powell Law Office building on Washington Street just west of the Depot Street intersection.
City Attorney Bill Phillips noted that the owner was cited into Municipal Court earlier this year for failing to maintain the building under the conditions laid out in the Slum Ordinance approved in October of 2017.
Phillips told the BMA Tuesday that the owner was give six months to make repairs, which weren’t completed.
“She then came back to Municipal Court and then met with the building inspector and myself, and she has agreed that what she would like to do is convey that property to the town of Rogersville,” Phillips said. “If that’s the case, then the town is at least going to have to stabilize it so it doesn’t collapse, because it’s probably on the verge of doing that.”
“It’s still salvageable, but it’s getting close”
Building Inspector Steve Nelson told the BMA that the Rogersville Historic Preservation Commission had voted to recommend the city accept the property in hopes that it can be saved.
“It is the most historical building we have in town, and it would be a shame to lose it,” Nelson said. “It seems like leaving it in private hands is not working at all. Hopefully, we can get some grants to take care of it. In the past three years, it has deteriorated badly. It’s still salvageable, but it’s getting close, so we would need to do something fairly quickly. We need to bring it into city ownership to be stabilized.”
The Powell Law Office, named for the former congressman who practiced law there in the early 1800s, is the first historic structure to be impacted by the ordinance.
Declared “unfit for human habitation”
The Municipal Court citation declared the structure at 128 Washington St. is a fire hazard and “unfit for human habitation” for a long list of reasons.
The Slum Ordinance states that the city can force property owners to repair dilapidated historic structures if the building inspector determines that a historic structure can be repaired and made fit for human habitation for less than 50 percent of the structure’s value.
On March 1, Rogersville Municipal Judge Kevin Keeton signed an order stating that the owner has six months to bring the building up to code, but no work was completed.
History of the Powell Law Office
The structure was named for 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 in Congress and resumed his law practice in that building in 1819. The exact date of construction of the building isn’t known, but some sources say it dates to the late 1700s.
Powell died in 1841 and is buried next door to his office in the old Presbyterian Church Cemetery.
The building was most recently a locksmith shop, but it has been a vacant and slowly deteriorating eyesore for decades.
The entire lot measures only 924 square feet, and the house takes up a little more than half of that. The county appraisal for 2018 lists its value at $17,800.
Nelson testified in Municipal Court that the Powell Law Office has enhanced value due to its historic significance and can be repaired for less than 50 percent of its value.
“It’s getting ready to fall down”
Nelson told the Times News after Tuesday’s meeting that although the Powell house has a good roof, it has no gutters, and water has caused significant damage.
“Over the past five years it’s gone down big time,” Nelson said. “The foundation is crumbling. Some of the logs are rotting. The back is really shot. Years ago (the owner) came to the Historic Preservation Commission and said she wanted to tear it down, move it back and rebuild it, and that was turned down because they wanted it to be in the exact, same spot. Then she did nothing.”
As soon as the city has a deed, Nelson will begin work. He said the back side needs to be boarded up because it’s crumbling. He said he will draw up specifications for repairs and renovations and bring them to the BMA as quickly as possible.
Rogersville bought the Blue Spring House and 1.5 acre lot for $75,000 in 2016 for use as an expansion of the City Park. By then, however, the house had been exposed to the elements for several years and was deemed not salvageable.
In July, Kingsport-based Grimm Construction was awarded the contract to demolish the Blue Spring House for $23,900. On Tuesday, Alderman Bill Henderson asked why the demolition hadn’t yet taken place.
City Recorder Glenn Hutchens said the contractor intended to raze the structure by Oct. 1, but after the hurricanes had to move that project down the priority list behind storm damage repair projects down South.