Dupont rules against city in historic district case

DEIDRE CRUSE and TRYVE BRACKIN

District Judge William C. Dupont on Friday denied an injunction to stop the demolition of a 100-year-old house in the heart of Plaquemine’s Historic District, and ruled the city law governing the historic district is invalid.

Dupont had granted a temporary restraining order, but found that city ordinances governing the Historic District and the procedures by which they were enacted were flawed.

Plaquemine Mayor Mark A. “Tony” Gulotta said a decision on whether the city would have to issue a demolition permit would be made at a second hearing Wednesday.

Gulotta said the city could appeal the ruling, but more likely would reenact all the ordinances, especially those regarding demolition, to assure that they are properly done.

“This is not just about the historic district,” the mayor said. “This is about everybody in the City of Plaquemine. What the city did was give them a say-so [on their neighborhoods].”

The Board of Selectmen was scheduled to consider whether to appeal at its regular meeting Tuesday night.

Pressed by Historic District residents protesting the demolition of the building and the use of the property to expand the site of an auto body shop, the city filed suit to stop the demolition of the house at 23610 Church Street.

Brent Bonadona, owner of Performance Auto, and his parents bought the property, which he reportedly intends to use as a parking lot for his body shop.

For that, Bonadona still would need to have the property rezoned from residential to commercial use. The Plaquemine Planning and Zoning Commission and then the Board of Selectmen would have to approve the change.

Bonadona had applied for a demolition permit to take down the Church Street house and paid a fee to the city, but it had not been approved.

He told the court last week he had started demolition work on the inside of the house.

Gulotta said earlier the city had no control over the interior.

City Inspector Brandon Melleion told the court the house was unsafe and would be dangerous if a storm hit.

Tom Pitre, who sold the house to the Bonadonas, said that, in the presence of the city inspector before the sale, he took out the stained glass windows of the house, as well as their brackets and began removing some of the asbestos siding.

Pitre said in the 20 years he lived in the house, he had to have it leveled three times. According to the contractors who leveled the house, the height and the weight of the structure contributed to its foundation problems, he said. Pitre said he decided to sell the house and would not recommend that anyone try to remodel it.

Real estate appraiser John Delaune said he inspected the house and found foundation problems on the first floor, as well as in the attic. The house appraised for $40,000, but would need some $89,000 in repair work on the first floor and $160,000 on the second floor, the appraiser said.

Delaune said the fish scale shingles on the gable, circa 1910, are of no interest to appraisers these days, and that only commercial – not historic – value was a concern in appraisals.

Judge Dupont said the 1990 ordinance creating the Historic District Commission as an advisory panel had a sunset provision, and there was no evidence the city had re-enacted in 1994 as required by the original law.

He also found the city had been haphazard in maintaining the ordinances that cover the Historic District.

“According to state law, you had to be able to prove you had a public hearing when the historic district was created,” Mayor Gulotta said. “The city started working on it in 1984 and passed it in 1989. At some point, they had a public hearing. We couldn’t prove it.”

In that initial time, Bayou Country was the city’s official journal, and copies of the newspaper could not be found, he said.

“We only have to keep public notices for three years,” Gulotta said. “We keep it longer, but not 20 years.”

Although the city council updated the ordinances last year, Gulotta said he and the council probably would authorize the new Historic District Commission, aided by a consultant, to study the whole issue again and propose a new ordinance.

“We still have a nationally recognized historic district,” the mayor said. “Nobody can take that from us.”

At 22 blocks, Plaquemine’s historic area is one of the five largest in the state, he said.