Spain House saved again

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – The fate of the century-old Spain House remains uncertain this week after its owners lost their most recent bid to demolish the century-old home but vowed to appeal to a higher authority.
The Planning Committee on Monday reluctantly upheld an earlier decision by the Historic Preservation Commission that prevented Calvary Baptist Church from tearing down the three-story structure, which the church owns.
The committee voted 4-4 on the church’s appeal. A two-thirds majority was required to overturn the earlier ruling.
At issue was whether the Historic Preservation Commission had followed the law in denying the church’s request to demolish the house due to economic hardship. The church had to seek HPC permission because the house was designated a local historic landmark last year by the City Council. Any local landmark comes under the jurisdiction of the HPC.
The church, which bought the house in 2006, had argued it’d cost more to renovate than it’d be worth afterward. Calvary spokesman Greg Pirkle provided estimates showing $591,000 was necessary to repair the aging structure, but that it’s fair-market value after the fact would be only $575,000.
“That is an economic hardship,” Pirkle said. “We feel that we have met our obligation, met that burden of proof.”
But Historic Preservation Commission Chairwoman Karen Keeney explained that her group based its May 28 decision, not on the renovation costs or fair-market value price, but on whether the church could reasonably afford the investment.
Keeney said the church failed to provide information showing it couldn’t afford the renovation, which is why the commission denied its demolition request.
“We just want to save it,” Keeney told the group, noting the house is among the city’s few remaining to have survived the 1936 tornado that destroyed so much of earlier downtown Tupelo.
After hearing the evidence, Planning Committee members debated the definition of economic hardship and whether the Historic Preservation Commission understood it clearly. But they were repeatedly warned by legal counsel and City Planner Pat Falkner not to question the wisdom of the commission’s decision but to question whether it had followed proper procedure.
Most committee members begrudgingly agreed the commission had done no wrong, even though many said they disagreed with the logic behind that decision.
“I don’t feel like we have the right to say whether we think their interpretation of economic hardship is wrong, even though I think it is,” said longtime committee member Russ Wilson. “It looks to me like the Historic Preservation Commission played by the rules.”
Church members, many of whom were in attendance at the roughly 90-minute meeting at City Hall, said they’ll appeal the decision to the City Council. They have 30 days to do so.
If the council grants the demolition permit, Pirkle said the church will tear down the house as quickly as possible unless the city is willing to assume liability for it.
In that case, the church would give Tupelo the house while retaining the land to develop at a later date. The city then would have 18 months in which to relocate the house to another site before the church would seek to have it demolished.
The City Council meets at 6 p.m. today, but the Spain House situation will not be on the agenda. That’s likely to appear sometime next month.
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@djournal.com.