Last September, after the controversial July demolition of the historic John Sunday House, Pensacola’s city council enacted a 180-day moratorium on demolition permits for any structure more than 100 years old.
Despite the freeze, the city in December issued a demolition permit for a house located at 422 West Gregory Street, in the historic Belmont-Devilliers neighborhood.
“According to the data from the Property Appraisers office, the year this structure was built was 1938,” said city spokesperson Vernon Stewart. “The structure did not meet the requirements of the moratorium.”
But a review of archival maps and other records dates the house back to at least 1885.
“The Property Appraiser dates are usually wrong and this house is from the late 1800s,” said Ross Pristera, a historic preservationist with the University of West Florida Historic Trust. “This Gulf Coast style cottage house is one of the unique architectural styles in this region and it is what makes Pensacola special.”
Property Appraiser Chris Jones confirmed that his office can’t guarantee the accuracy of its data, particularly the “year built” dates, which his office rarely even uses, Jones said, noting that the “effective year” is the one utilized in valuations. Jones pointed to a disclaimer on the front page of the Property Appraiser’s website: “No warranties, expressed or implied are provided for the data herein, its use, or its interpretation.”
Nonetheless, city officials relied on the 1938 date and on December 15 issued a demolition permit to A Door Properties, which purchased the parcel in December and has announced plans to build townhomes on the site. However, the house hasn’t been demolished, and the permit expired last week. A Door representatives did not respond for a request for comment.
One of the house’s earliest residents, if not its first, was Arthur Herbert D’Alemberte, a businessman who would later become the city and county tax collector and city councilman. Records show D’Alemberte transferred the property to his wife in 1884, and the D’Alembertes were noted as living in a house on the property in the 1885 city directory. The D’Alembertes sold the house in 1905 to Julius Eggart, a conductor for the Louisville & Nashville Railroad.
It’s unclear why the city chose to rely on the Property Appraiser’s questionable data instead of accurately determining the house’s age. The moratorium ordinance adopted by the city council didn’t specify its use.
Mayor Ashton Hayward’s office declined to comment for this story, but City Council president Brian Spencer, who introduced the moratorium ordinance, says the error points to the need for a comprehensive assessment of the city’s historic structures.
“I believe this isolated incident has provided evidence that our city’s current dependability on the Property Appraiser’s data is unreliable,” said Spencer. “And because the consequences of demolition are so irreversible, corrective action in the form of replacing erroneous data with correct data is imperative. Timing is of the essence, and a new assessment should be a top priority.”