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Flat Rock, county move to recognize historic landmarks

Historic Resources Commission chair Sue Shepherd Sneeringer and members Bette Carter, Don Wilson and Ronald Schultz discuss historic landmarks ordinance. Historic Resources Commission chair Sue Shepherd Sneeringer and members Bette Carter, Don Wilson and Ronald Schultz discuss historic landmarks ordinance.

Henderson County folks wear the cloak of history.

The central business district calls itself Historic Downtown Hendersonville. Seventh Avenue, a bustling center of retail when the railroad let off passengers here, is known as the Historic Seventh Avenue District.
The village south of Hendersonville is Historic Flat Rock, not just Flat Rock. Hendersonville, Laurel Park and Flat Rock have all erected their own historic markers for worthy properties. The School Board created an entire committee to research and preserve local school history.
Yet for all that, only two properties in the county are officially designated as historic landmarks for tax purposes, giving homeowners a 50 percent discount on their annual tax bill. Those are two Erle Stilwell designed homes in the city of Hendersonville, the only local jurisdiction up to now that has the power to designate historic landmarks.
That will soon change.
Flat Rock — Historic Flat Rock — has jumped into the history hunt with a new historic landmarks ordinance. Thanks to the yeoman's work of a retired attorney who serves on the Village Council, the town is close to sending its first historic landmark designation to Raleigh, which must certify the landmark.
Dunroy, a 5,517-square-foot home that once stood on a 97½-acre estate along the Buncombe Turnpike during the antebellum peak of Flat Rock's growth as "the Little Charleston in the Mountains," is first in line for historic landmark designation.

County moving ahead
The Henderson County Historic Resources Commission is moving ahead with a county ordinance. The law could authorize the commission to make landmarks eligible for a tax break — provided the Board of Commissioners approves.
The Historic Resources Commission ran aground a year ago when it could not get direction from the Board of Commissioners on how to proceed in its mission of preserving historical landmarks. Formed in 2008, the eight-member commission had spent five years researching historic structures countywide. It created an inventory of 160 properties more than 100 years old, culled the list to 20 and narrowed that list to eight.
The historic board's chair, Sue Shepherd Sneeringer, said she is encouraged by the county's support. John Mitchell, the county's planning and business development director, and planner Parker Sloan attended the commission's meeting last week. Sarah Zambon, a deputy county attorney, guided the board members through a review of the 10-page ordinance.
"It has to go before the county commission for their approval, and we can move forward from there," Sneeringer said. "We're moving on now, which is what's important."
If the county adopts a historic landmarks, Sneeringer said the Poplar Lodge in Laurel Park and the 101-year-old Saint Paul's Episcopal Church could be the first to be designated (although the church, as an exempt property, does not need the property tax discount). Those properties benefit from plenty of research, she said.
"We basically have to do exactly what would be done for a National Historic Places designation," she said. "We have to do the same research as if we were going to do the National Register."
It's a tremendous amount of work, as Flat Rock Village Councilman Ron Davis can attest.
Davis, a retired attorney who chairs the village's Historic Landmarks Commission, helped draft the village's Historic Landmarks Ordinance, then took on the job of researching the Dunroy home and writing a nomination.
"We chose Dunroy as the first property to be designated because there's significant information on Dunroy," Davis said. "We chose to take the lead on that to establish a template, if you will, for future designations. It requires a lot of work, as you might imagine. We wanted to do the first one and set the standard for the future. Not that everyone has to be 30 pages."
A preservation specialist with the state Historic Preservation Office in Asheville accompanied Flat Rock officials on a tour of Dunroy and reviewed the draft nomination.
"I would anticipate hopefully finalizing the report and getting it off to the office in Raleigh in July," he said.
The experience so far has shown Davis that the process is detailed and time-consuming. From now on, he said, a Village Council member or staff won't be doing the work for a property owner who wants a tax exemption.
"At one time I thought we would send off a dozen of these things or a half dozen to the state at a time and they were quick to let me know they couldn't handle that number," he said. "I would be surprised if it would be over 20 (properties) and it may be less than that. It depends on the property owner and their interest."


Limiting tax exempt acreage
Henderson County Tax Assessor Stan Duncan met with the county's Historic Resources Commission last week and explained the process.
StanDuncanHenderson County Tax Assessor Stan Duncan explains law governing historic landmark exemptions."Once (a designation) is adopted by the board, it's up to the property owner to come forward" and apply for the tax exemption, he said. "I have a lot of people come to me and say, 'I have a plaque.' That means nothing to us as far as the property tax is concerned."
Duncan cautioned the board about a historic structure that could be on a large tract.
"Lincoln County had a large piece of property that the historic group advocated for designation," he said. "It was well past 10 acres. The public when they found out about it raised some real issues. The county came back and addressed it in a new ordinance and restated the acreage."
Flat Rock Village Councilman Davis said he had already spoken to Duncan about that issue.
"In a much larger parcel it may be necessary for the property owner to do a survey of what is to be designated as a landmark and then that defines for the tax people — Mr. Duncan – what is a landmark and how that is to be adjusted," Davis said.
Sneeringer said none of the eight properties the county board wants to designate as landmarks is on a large tract. "I don't think the land issue is going to come into play," she said.
Under the new Flat Rock Historic Landmarks ordinance and one the county Historic Resources Commission, the owner of a historic landmark would have to preserve the historic character of the property's exterior. If the owner elected not to, by constructing an addition, for instance, the tax assessor would cancel the exemption and collect the previous three years worth of discounted taxes.
Local, state and national criteria for historic landmark certification are all different, Duncan pointed out. The tax exemption comes only with local certification, not state or federal. It does apply uniformly among local government jurisdictions. If Flat Rock designates a property as a historic landmark, for instance, the 50 percent tax cut applies on the county tax bill, too. If the county certified a landmark in Mills River, the tax break would apply to both town and county taxes.

Tax savings of $2,000

The Dunroy home is owned by attorney Michael Thompson and his wife, Elaine. The house and outbuildings are valued at $563,500 and the land is valued at $129,600 for a total of $693,100. Cutting the county property tax bill in half would save the Thompsons $1,780 per year in county taxes and $281 in Flat Rock village and fire district taxes — a $2,061 savings in all.
Built during "a golden era of social and economic development in Henderson County," the home was built by Henry Farmer, the owner of the Farmer Inn, which was the Woodfield Inn and is now called the Mansouri Mansion.
"It is also historically significant due to the many individuals of historic significance who have enjoyed its ambiance for over 150 years, including Christopher G. Memminger, the first Secretary of the Confederate Treasury," the report says. "Some owners and visitors were relatives of three signers of the Declaration of Independence and/or the US Constitution (Heyward, Rutledge and Middleton). Owners and visitors alike were the 'Who's Who' of antebellum South Carolina society."