Preservation vs. Parking Lot: Historic District residents fight body shop expansion

DEIDRE CRUSE, Governmental Reporter
CAR LOT CONTROVERSY...Residents of Plaquemine’s Historic District are exploring all their options for stopping the owner of Performance Auto from demolishing an historic house and building a parking lot for his body shop on the property. The house, sold last month by Thomas Barry Pitre, is located at the southwest corner of Church and Court streets in the heart of the city’s National-Register-listed historic district. Performance Auto owner Brent Bonadona is looking to expand his thriving, but hemmed-in, business.

Residents of Plaquemine’s Historic District have been in an uproar since last week over a body shop owner’s plans to demolish a century-old house to make way for a business expansion.

The controversy could be the first test of new city laws governing the historic district and of the new Historic District Commission

“We’re happy that his business is flourishing, but the growth of a business shouldn’t come at the expense of the historic district,” said district resident Les Ann Kirkland. “Growing businesses need to move into Plaquemine’s designated commercial areas.”

“At this time, I probably can’t [comment] because of the controversy,” Brent Bonadona, owner of Performance Auto, told the POST/SOUTH.

The Bonadona family bought the house from Thomas Barry Pitre, son of the late Sheriff Freddie Pitre, on April 20.Tommy Pitre moved out last week, with neighbors closely monitoring activity at the property.

Local preservationist Sue G. Hebert said the historic house, build c. 1905, and an old oak tree are in the heart of the historic district, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

According to Hebert and Kirkland, Bonadona plans to put a fence around the property to shield the parking lot from view.

“The homes located at three opposite corners are all two stories, and we, along with other historic property owners are very displeased with what is taking place...”

Mayor Mark A. “Tony” Gulotta  and City Inspector Brandon Melleion confirmed that Bonadona has applied for a demolition permit to tear down the house on the southwest corner of Church and Court streets to make way for a parking lot.

To use the property for his business, Bonadona would have to apply also for a change from residential to commercial zoning, the mayor said.

On Monday, Memorial Day, neighbors of the property called the Plaquemine Police to get them to stop what they thought was the beginning of the demolition, forbidden until Bonadona gets the required permit.

“We did send the police there,” the mayor said. “He was demolishing some walls on the inside, which he has a right to do.”

Neighbors also were upset that some trees were being cut down on the property, but Gulotta said the city has “nothing to do with trees. He can cut down all the trees he wants.”

Before Bonadona can get a demolition permit, he first must get a “certificate of appropriateness” from the Historic District Commission. If the commission denies the certificate, the matter would go to the Board of Selectmen for a resolution.

If the city council denied the permit, Bonadona could file suit, the mayor said.

“We have never had that law tested,” he said.

Residents say the harder fight might come at the Plaquemine Planning and Zoning Board, if Bonadona applies to have the property rezoned for commercial use.

If Planning and Zoning rejects the change, the matter again would go to the city council.

“I just want him to follow the law,” Gulotta said. “I know it’s got the neighborhood stirred up. This is the first time the demolition law has been used.”

Hebert cited what was at stake in the historic district, which has a large variety of architectural styles dating from the mid 1840s to the 1930s.

“Our buildings reflect our attitudes and lifestyles in the town of Plaquemine and Iberville Parish during the development of the great agricultural system and the golden age of plantations,” she said. Since local lumbermen and business leaders were well connected with architects in New Orleans, whose work is apparent in a walking tour of the district.

Within three blocks along Church Street in the area of the planned parking lot, there are no fewer than 15 buildings of historic significance, including the city’s premier tourist attractions and private homes.

“Property owners have spent many dollars and sweat equity preserving these properties that collectively are worth so much [to the] beauty and history of our town,” Hebert said.