Owner and Cleveland officials clash over fate of 1920s-era house

Owner and Cleveland officials clash over fate of 1920s-era house

March 5th, 2012 by Randall Higgins in News

Danny Crosland, right, a contractor, and Paul Stanfield, from Home Depot, measure windows on a 1924 house in Cleveland's historic district Tuesday. A year and a half after a fire gutted the house, the city is seeking a court order to tear it down, citing health and safety concerns. The owner, Joe V. Williams, had until Tuesday to respond to the city lawsuit.

Photo by Randall Higgins/Times Free Press.

CLEVELAND, Tenn. - City officials are asking for court permission to demolish an old house inside its Historic Preservation District.

The 1920s-era house is one of two on a lot at 14th Street and Harle Avenue and is owned by Joe V. Williams.

"It was in bad shape before the fire," said Joan Benjamin, who also lives in the Historic Preservation District and is a member of its commission.

The fire on Nov. 25, 2010, "caused significant damage to the structure," according to a lawsuit the city filed in Chancery Court. Since the fire, Williams and city officials have gone back and forth about what to do.

The city repeatedly has told Williams the house is unfit for habitation, a safety hazard and in violation of building codes. Each time, Williams asks for more time to remodel the structure.

"I know it's an old house. And I am all for taking care of old houses," Benjamin said. "We were willing to give him a chance, but he has not followed through."

"The concern by both the historic zoning and myself is how you put it back together," Williams said. "I know the city was upset, but I was in a quandary."

One problem was windows, he said. Wooden windows of the period are hard to find, he said. But now, he said, he has approval for new material.

"I have no beef with the city and no beef with the zoning," he said.

Williams and the city have been at odds before. In March 2010, Chancellor Jerri Bryant ruled in favor of a woman who sued Williams' Louisville Land Co. and Williams for dilapidated conditions in his portion of the historic Fort Hill Cemetery. That ruling followed months of give-and-take in 2009 between Williams and city and Bradley County officials over cemetery conditions.

The city's latest petition also is before Bryant.

For nearly a year, City Council members have asked at almost every meeting about the status of the house. They usually were told the city was waiting on a response from Williams to the latest complaint notice.

"The defendant in this case has a history of not maintaining other properties in compliance with various codes of the city, and his actions in failing to repair this structure in a timely fashion indicate that this problem will be an ongoing problem," according to the lawsuit filed at the end of January by City Attorney John Kimball.

In his written response, Williams asked the court for more time.

"Many homes in Cleveland have had [delays] due to weather, death, sickness or financial difficulty," he said in the response.

On Wednesday, Kimball filed another request asking for a hearing at the court's earliest opportunity.

"Otherwise this case may continue to linger for months without demolition or repair," the city's request reads.