The city has no immediate plans to demolish any of the five dilapidated Old Town houses recently identified as "unsafe," the city's top building official says.
In a May 5 letter, Chief Building Official Ron Wampler notified the Historic Architectural Review Commission that he had placed the owners of 904 Emma St., 914 Emma St., 1019 Elgin Lane, 221 Petronia St. and 719 Whitehead St. on notice that their structures have fallen into critical disrepair and may require demolition.
But that doesn't mean the city is calling in the wrecking crews anytime soon, Wampler said.
"Demolition is never a fast process in my experience," Wampler told HARC members Tuesday at Old City Hall. "I have posted them all as unsafe and not habitable, that was the purpose of this letter."
The next step is for city staff to make contact with each building's owner and discuss the options they have: restoration, tear down or sale.
Also, the city must devise some way to ensure the houses, two of which date back to the 1880s-90s, pose no danger to the general public.
One of the five, it turns out, has tenants: 221 Petronia St., owned by James Matthew Chapman of Key West. The home recently burned on the second story, prompting the fire marshal to call city hall, Wampler said.
"The bank just obtained title to it Friday," Wampler said. "The bank has assured me the next step is eviction for the tenants on that property. I've tried for three weeks now to get it boarded up from the people on site who say they're the owners."
But city staff Tuesday couldn't answer HARC Chairman Michael Miller's question: "Are these going to come down for sure or not?"
The legal process is handled on a case-by-case basic, tailored specifically to each property in question, said Assistant City Attorney Ron Ramsingh.
As for authority over private homes, Ramsingh said the city can place liens on the property that lead to foreclosure.
"We can't force someone to sell their property," Ramsingh said.
HARC members and city staff Tuesday showed a preference for saving historic homes in Key West rather than eliminating them.
Miller, an architect, said he has worked on buildings as badly deteriorated as the five latest homes on the island to earn "unsafe" status.
"Every effort should be made to save historic houses," Miller said, adding that such projects are often quite costly.
Wampler said he would like to see someone step forward to save each of the homes. Of the five, four are located in Bahama Village. One of those four sits on a prominent corner: 904 Emma St. is next-door to the Frederick Douglass Gym, where children visit daily.
Affixed with pink shutters, the two-story building owned by the Housing Authority of Key West sits out in the open, with no fence or other barriers. It's wood siding is eroding and the roof has holes in it, city staff said.
"Everything is deteriorating in this structure," said Wampler. "I don't expect it to be standing much longer. It's lost its lines. Once a structure starts losing its lines, it's going to go and it's leaning. It's a shame because some of these were beautiful structures and could have been saved years ago."
For now, the homes are in grim shape: 719 Whitehead's roof is open and water is coming through, Wampler's report said, and 914 Emma has one side missing.
Wampler said he has had conversations with owners of each of the five homes.
The owner of the home at 1019 Elgin Lane, David Blain of Laguna Beach, Calif., has spent money on repairs, Wampler said: the interior has been gutted and it sits on a new foundation.
"I don't have these five buildings on the list for no reasons," said Wampler. "I'm certainly open to meetings with the owners and what they wish to do to preserve them or prolong them or board them up."