by Jeremy Morrison
It’s barely lunch time on a Tuesday. The earlybirds at Five Sisters are still looking over their menus, and the demolition equipment sitting down the street still has a good day of work ahead of it.
On the street, Earnest Saulsberry waits in his car.
“I’m just suppose to clean it up,” he explains. “Demolish the house and clean it up.”
Saulsberry is there to take down 417 West Belmont, a tiny house next door to Beno and Al’s barbershop. He’s waiting on water so the wind doesn’t blow demolition debris all over Belmont Devilliers, and slowly figuring out he’s walked into the midst of a fairly passionate save-the-historical-structures campaign.
“This is absolutely disgusting,” Ann Hill had said a few minutes earlier, walking around the property.
Hill has been an active proponent of saving Pensacola’s historic properties. She and her daughter are among those who are lobbying the city to put more safeguards in place for such structures.
“This is the heart of Belmont-Devilliers,” Hill said. “We’ve got this part just perfect and now it’s like pulling a molar right out of the mouth. It shouldn’t happen.”
The West Belmont street property is listed as being built in 1901. Saulsberry had already begun eating into it with a backhoe, and Teresa Hill had already taken to social media to post old black-and-white photos and lament the structure’s loss.
“How much more destruction will it take?” she asked on Facebook. “This was the old B&B Taxi stand.”
Soon enough, the property’s owner was on Saulberry’s phone. The contractor turned the conversation over to Andy Thoms, listed on his business card as being with Venture Realty in Fort Collins, Colo.
“I’m going to redevelop the site and I’m working on plans,” Thoms said, declining to elaborate, except to say that he planned to “maximize the highest and best use for the site.”
A few minutes later, Thoms would bike around the corner. When asked about the the current debate going on within the community and amongst city officials pertaining to historic structures, the developer said that he would have preferred to save 417 West Belmont.
“I’m pro-pro-save the historic property,” he said. “That is my intent every single time, and that was the intent with this property until I actually owned it and got in there.”
Thoms described how the structure was “basically condemned” and “not salvageable.” He explained that he had three contractors look at the property, and was informed the roof was damaged beyond repair and the house would need to be taken down to the studs.
“I absolutely tried,” Thoms said. “If I was working with a good structure, that would be a different story.”
Salvageable or not, Hill noted the old taxi stand was in the “heart of the Belmont” and stressed the loss of history and lack of process in place to protect historic properties from demolition. She said she feared a “flurry of demolitions” due to city council’s indication that it would work to protect older properties, and she suggested a demolition moratorium was needed while the city looked into the issue.
That’s something Councilman Brian Spencer intends to ask his fellow council members to consider.
“I’m pursuing crafting resolution language that would establish a moratorium,” Spencer said Wednesday. “I’m trying to create a moratorium on the demolition of historic structures until the Land Development Code is amended to address the demolition review process for historic structures.”
The councilman said he was looking for a half year moratorium.
“It will take four months, at best, if we don’t get caught up in a lot of debate,” Spencer said of the time needed to take an inventory of structures in the city and hammer out an acceptable way to handle the potential demolition of those deemed historically significant. “In the meantime we need a 180-day moratorium.”
Spencer said that city council’s efforts were not meant to stall the demolition of structures that were not savable. He said in cases where an owner felt the property was beyond repair and needed to come down, there would need to be an appeals process in place and a third-party avenue for determining the state of a structure.
“My goal is not to stop redevelopment or the demolition of unsafe structures,” Spencer said.
The councilman said he expects to have potential moratorium language for the city council to consider soon.