By M. Pierce
Neighborhood children, a giant heritage tree and property listed on the National Park’s Register of Historic Places were endangered by illegal excavation over last month’s MLK holiday weekend, January 18 -20.
With no permit and no apparent warning signs, contractors hired by Everett Custom Homes plied heavy equipment through a public right of way, chewing up the midsection of the historic Herman Vetter property’s sloping lawn at 5830 SE Taylor.
A deep and arguably dangerous pit was left where a dozen or so local children frequently run and play along a five-block sidewalk, uninterrupted by intersecting streets. Everett bought the entire property in August for $705K; Zillow (www.zillow.com/portland-or0 has the house value at $700 K.
With City offices closed for three days, residents had no recourse for complaint until the City reopened on Tuesday, January 21. Upon inspecting the property, the City issued a stop work order and barricades were erected to prevent pedestrians from falling into a deep trench.
The unpermitted digging jeopardized the roots of one of the City’s oldest sequoias located on an adjacent lot. While it may be too soon to know if the tree has been damaged, the maximum fine that could be levied by the City Parks Division against owner-builder Everett Custom Homes is $1000.
An additional $1000 a day for the unpermitted excavation could be levied by the Bureau of Development Services. “This is the equivalent of no TV for a few days,” said one frustrated neighbor.
Everett Homes purchased the property this summer with the intent of partitioning the lot, digging a driveway and constructing one of the stock plan homes the Beaverton-based builder bills as “pristine, quality” with timeless architectural designs.
The City says this is the first time the builder has been cited for not having a permit. Tthe builder has since claimed it was an honest mistake and they want to do right by the neighborhood. While the builder had applied for a permit, it had not yet been granted. (Ironically, the Bureau of Transportation approved the curb cut on January 21, the day after the work had been done.)
Despite the citation, the lot division will likely be approved since it meets area zoning criteria. A builder could then apply for construction permits. Ross Caron, public information officer for the Department of Planning and Sustainability, says he sees no red flags that would stop partition.
Residents, concerned that splitting the lot would impact the slope and sightlines to the iconic Queen Anne Vernacular, circa 1890, mobilized a letter-writing campaign to the department. Following the flood of objections, the builder offered a portion of the property for resale even though lot division had not yet been approved.
“Breaking it up is a bad idea from the start,” according to architect, University of Oregon teacher and neighbor John Cava. “But if it has to be done, given all the restrictions, including the neighboring Heritage Tree, there should be design professionals on the team to create a custom solution, and there should be real outreach to the neighbors.”
Lisa Cox lives across from the Vetter House and is saddened and appalled by the deep scar left by the excavation. She would like the hillside restored. “Once they pour concrete, it’s game over. If this can happen to this historic registered home,” she continued, “what does this mean for the future of historic registered places… say Mt. Tabor Park and its reservoirs that are also on the National Registry – – no protection?!”
Historic properties have some safeguards. Building plans are subject to review by the Bureau of Development Services. Residents are unclear whether they can influence the process.
Well-preserved after 124 years, the Vetter House is a popular landmark for walkers enroute to Mt. Tabor Park. Kids call it the Disneyland House. Its sloping lawn invites picnics beneath the shade of gigantic trees and tumbling down a hillside is reminiscent of a vanished time.
The National Parks Service knows it as representative of the homes that once graced Mt. Tabor and influenced the siting of the Belmont trolley line and Mt. Tabor Park.
“It’s a city gem,” emphasized a neighbor advocating for preservation at a recent neighborhood association meeting.
“The Herman Vetter House and lot is a rare historical asset in that both the home and lot are intact specimens epitomizing the Streetcar Era of development in Portland,” wrote Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association’s Land-use Chair Stephanie Stewart in a letter to the City.
Stewart would like to address gaps in zoning that allow construction and house flipping on historic lots. While historic designation technically means construction would require a review process, the neighborhood association has received conflicting information on how much influence it might have.
Residents, who say they were ready to work toward a suitable plan with Everett, say they will continue to work with Everett or any builder providing they are respectful of the integrity of the home and streetscape. “Infill need not be mindless fill,” said one local.
Land-use Chair Stewart says, “Our city has adopted new codes that drive us to build more densely in neighborhoods like Mt. Tabor. But, surely it is not wise to impose our newer density restrictions (and maximum lot sizes) on this remarkable historical jewel.”
“Part of the problem is that zoning codes fail to differentiate between the character of different neighborhoods, and unique buildings like the Vetter House,” said Cava.
Concern about bulldozing over the past is widespread.“Nearly every day in the City we lose homes that are 100 years or older,” according to Val Ballestrem of the Portland Architectural Heritage Center. Very few are listed on the National Register, however, so they have no protections.
Still, Ballestrem says there is reason to be optimistic that the property will be preserved. “I do not think that the City does enough to preserve its historic (but not listed) homes of all shapes and sizes, but their track record of late with listed buildings has been okay.”
Below are excerpts of Stephanie Stewart’s letter to Sean Williams, the planner assigned to review the lot subdivision:
“A review of the documents on file with the National Registry of Historic Places reveals that the entire lot was included in the registration of the Vetter property precisely because it is integral and significant to the story being preserved. The registry documents point out that not only is the house’s structure remarkably intact and an excellent representation of the Queen Anne vernacular, it happens to also sit on one of the only intact lots, still possessing the original landscape-to-neighborhood scale representative of this style of house in this particular era. Together this house and this lot provide for us fabric of the original setting that inspired our city to grow eastward.
The registry documents conclude with an emphasis on the importance of this particular property’s setting, and the historical context it provides, noting that other examples, “lack the Victorian landscape context, panoramic vista, originality of building materials and neighborhood scale, generally, to equal qualities found in the setting and fabric of the Herman Vetter House at 5830 SE Taylor Street.”
Update 1/31/14 – The stop work order has been lifted