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City, former employee face off: Lu-Ann Monson wants to save her houses

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For 30 years, Lu-Ann Monson spent her days advocating for historic preservation and planning efforts for the city of Wilson. Now, Monson and the city are at odds over the future of two historic properties she owns.

The city is considering demolition as one option, but Monson wants to restore both properties, including the home where she lives. Monson contends she has been actively working on repairs and restoration, and she will appear before the Wilson City Council next month to state her case — but it might be too little, too late.

“We must always balance preservation of our historic neighborhoods and adequate property maintenance. In (the case of 509 Kenan St.), the structural repairs alone were estimated at over $100,000, so the economics of preserving the home no longer work. We would love to see the home repaired,” said Rodger Lentz, chief planning and development officer. “My understanding is the property was set to be demolished in 2003, and it was purchased to prevent demolition. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the home was not fully repaired and was allowed to deteriorate to its condition today.

“I truly wish she had made the repairs or even just mothballed the house in structurally sound condition so it could be fully rehabilitated in the future. We are at this point today because that has not happened.”

Monson, the city’s former historic preservation planner, said personal obligations have complicated the progress, but it had not ground to a halt until the Kenan Street house was condemned and her building permit was canceled on July 18.

“What is done and what I’ve purchased so far for Kenan Street has me about 60% of the way there,” she estimated.

HOMES JEOPARDIZED JOB

Monson relocated to Wilson from the Midwest in 1988 and worked in historic preservation for three decades. She purchased 301 Broad St. in 1990 with the plan of using her construction and architecture background to restore the 1893 Victorian home in the Broad-Kenan Historic District. While working full time, she completed projects around the home and was active in the community. When the fire-damaged Kenan Street property was up for demolition, Monson worked to find the owner a buyer, but when plans fell through, she purchased the 1928 bungalow herself.

“When you go into an old house and do repairs, the majority of the work is in the kitchen and the bathroom, so I have always recommended stripping it down to the joists if you’re going to do a fair amount of investment, so you can make sure everything is square and solid,” Monson recalled. “When I did that, I found an 18-inch crack in a drain pipe from the sink and sill damage related to it. There were drainage issues from the next-door property that also caused a lot of issues, especially in the dining room.”

According to a May letter to the city, Monson said she battled vandalism and thefts at the house while receiving violation notices from the city regarding tall grass and trash in the yard.

“In spite of the fact that I had an active building permit at the time, temporary perm electrical service and the roofer was coming the next day to install the shingles, Tim Holloman (director of development services at the time) ordered removal of the utilities so he could proceed with demolition — a week before the deadline he had imposed to have the roof installed,” the letter states, referencing an incident a few years into owning the house. “The next morning the roofer was on-site, I paid him and left for a work conference. When I returned, there were a few areas the roofer had not completed.”

Her investment in both properties as well as her issues continued to mount. In 2015, her employee evaluations reflected the city’s take on everything.

“I question whether my home repair should be reflected in my performance evaluations. I have ‘successful’ or ‘exceeds expectations’ on the evaluation, but there are comments of, ‘Lu-Ann has some personal projects that need swift and dedicated attention to improve others’ respect and confidence in her and others’ perception of her as the expert in the field that she is,’” Monson said, reading a copy of her employee evaluation from Oct. 29, 2015, before noting the sentence is repeated and embellished on her form from Nov. 4, 2016.

“It adds, ‘Lack of action in these areas has diminished her personal credibility and relationships with others both inside and outside the organization and that of the department and organization more than she seems to realize, although efforts have been made to stress this with her.’”

Two months later, Monson received a phone call from her sister saying their mother had been hospitalized following a fall in her home. Monson rushed to be with her family in the Midwest, eventually putting her mom in a nursing home before returning to work in mid-April for a meeting with Lentz.

Lentz provided her with a letter highlighting the continued issues with the condition of the Broad Street and Kenan Street properties before giving her an ultimatum: accept a demotion and pay cut to the role of planner or be fired. She accepted the demotion, receiving a letter from the building inspector around the same time citing hazardous conditions at the Kenan Street house and ordering a hearing for May.

During the May hearing, Monson detailed a year timeline for the bulk of the work to be completed. Senior code enforcement official Charles Taylor agreed to work with Monson, who retired from the city Sept. 1, 2018.

CURRENT DILEMMAS

While completing structural repairs on both properties, Monson spent 10 months caring for her late neighbor’s teenage boy as well as an army of animals. During the Wilson Historic Preservation Commission’s April meeting, city staff presented five properties — including the Broad Street and Kenan Street homes — to be considered for demolition by neglect, and Monson received notification on April 13 that she was required to present a preservation plan within 30 days to address the issues with the properties’ exteriors or face fines and other penalties.

“Deterioration of a historic building due to the lack of maintenance is called demolition by neglect,” Dana Corson, preservation planner, explained during the June Historic Preservation Commission meeting regarding the orders on Monson’s properties. “Regular maintenance protects the structural systems of a building and keeps them in usable form. Deferred maintenance over prolonged periods can result in deterioration and irreversible damage to a building, resulting in demolition. A property owner is responsible for the care and maintenance of his or her building.”

In response to the demolition by neglect cases, Monson submitted a six-page letter detailing the restoration history and struggles on both houses as well as a bulleted list of projects to be completed on each.

“Sadly, almost all of the recent work I’ve outlined isn’t obvious from the outside of the house, but all of it is necessary for a quality finished product,” Monson said of the completed work on the Broad Street house. “... I can assure you that nobody wants my house projects completed more than I do, but the time spent explaining every little aspect of my work and justifying the way I’ve prioritized it could have been more productively spent working on the projects. Having a simple conversation with me might have prevented a great deal of this activity.”

During the June hearing, Monson was joined by others who spoke on her behalf and questioned the city’s use of the demolition by neglect process against someone actively working to renovate properties.

“I’m a patient person. Historic preservation, the way that Lu-Ann knows it should be done, is slow and tedious,” said Leslie Kendall. “Historic preservation done correctly has to be done meticulously, and it is not a fast process. Lu-Ann knows how to do it, and she knows how to do it right, and she is doing it right on her house. If you go and sit on her front porch, you will see.”

Ultimately, the commission dismissed the demolition by neglect cases, citing procedural errors. In July, Monson was ordered to appear at a hearing regarding the safety of the Kenan Street property. Taylor decided to order the Kenan Street home demolished within 60 days, canceling the active building permit Monson had on the house. On Aug. 2, Monson filed an appeal of the demolition order, and she is slated to appear at the Wilson City Council’s Sept. 19 meeting.

“I was proud to work for the city of Wilson and proud of my accomplishments while there for the 30 ½ years,” Monson concluded. “I never imagined I would be harassed or targeted for trying to do the right thing, the right way, with a building permit and without city or other funds to help improve properties in Wilson.”

DEMOLITION OPTION

Monson estimates the cost to finish the Kenan Street property at around $19,000 — noting she can complete many of the projects herself because of her background and experience. Taylor reportedly had a licensed contractor look at the house — from the exterior only — and the contractor estimated $150,000 of work to stabilize it.

“While our goal is to encourage owners to repair and save homes, sometimes the economic cost does not match the potential economic return. In those cases, it often becomes necessary to demolish a structure,” Lentz said. “We work with owners by allowing them to propose a plan of action and repair schedule when it would be potentially feasible for repairs to be made. Unfortunately, sometimes people with the best of intentions are not able to follow through, and the home falls into further disrepair. At that point, demolition remains the only viable option for many dilapidated homes.”

Once the city demolishes a building, a lien is placed against the property for the cost. Additional liens often are placed when property owners neglect the vacant lot and city crews are forced to mow tall grass and weeds.

“We’re trying to finish the case on Kenan, and then we’ll move back to the Broad Street property,” Lentz said. “Most cases we deal with are vacant homes, so we are working through how to handle an occupied home in a historic district. Again, our goal is to have the repairs made rather than demolish the structures.”

Monson has an active building permit on the Broad Street property, but she admitted she is reluctant to begin work as she feels city officials have decided demolition is the ultimate solution.

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