Heights houses at risk: Demolition requires no city review

The house in the center of this photo has just been purchased from JP Morgan Chase Bank by its neighbor for $211,500. No demolition permit has been filed, however, some neighbors have expressed concern that this could happen without their knowledge. Photo by Hugh Fisher.

The street is typical of Cleveland Heights: tree-lined, picturesque, with beautiful houses built at the turn of the last century. This one happens to be in one of the city’s more upscale neighborhoods, but the story could play out anywhere in our city: A house is in foreclosure and neighbors worry that a purchaser could demolish it without notifying or consulting the community.

An investigation of city ordinances reveals that obtaining permission to demolish a building is as simple as obtaining permission to put up a fence. It requires only a $100 permit. There is no review by city planners. No notification to the neighbors. No opportunity for comment. No consideration of the impact on the neighborhood, either aesthetically or on property values.

Richard Wong, director of planning and development for the City of Cleveland Heights, confirmed that city ordinances do not require a formal review of a demolition request.

“Certainly one of the issues with demolition would be the long-term impact on a neighborhood, but it is not regulated and not addressed by our ordinances,” Wong said.

There are a variety of property-related activities that fall under the auspices of the Planning Commission, the Board of Zoning Appeals and the Board of Control, and thus require an official review, complete with public notification and official approval. A plan to join two properties, or lot re-subdivision, for example, would require Planning Commission approval, and thus a review.

Moreover, any new construction or an alteration of any kind to an existing building – for example, an addition – requires going before the Architectural Board of Review. This too would require a review. 

But a demolition would not be subject to this public process, Wong confirmed.

“Recently, when Zagara’s wanted to tear down a house to expand their parking lot, we notified 350 people in the immediate neighborhood,” said Wong, “but not because of the teardown. Zagara’s wanted to change the use of the property for parking and, under zoning appeals regulations, we were required to make notification.”

Even at that, the city received complaints that more people should have been notified. “Clearly, people are interested in these things,” Wong said. “Our ordinances relating to demolition seem to be weak and don’t consider the overall impact.”

Cleveland Heights resident Jane Busch, a historic preservation consultant, said that a preservation ordinance can give a local historic preservation commission the authority to deny the demolition of a building in a designated local historic district. But for communities that do not want to impose such restrictions, a less stringent measure – a demolition review ordinance – can help to prevent demolitions that diminish a community’s historic character.   

“Demolition review ordinances typically establish a waiting period that gives the local government time to determine if a building is historically significant, and if so, to try to negotiate an alternative to demolition,” Busch said.

Such alternatives could include redesigning the project so that demolition is unnecessary, or finding a buyer who wants to preserve the building. Demolition review generally takes into consideration plans for the site following demolition and includes notification to neighbors and an opportunity for public comment. 

Hugh Fisher is a Cedar Fairmount resident.

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Volume 2, Issue 3, Posted 11:04 AM, 02.24.2009