A local property owner feels she got a raw deal after two Mount Airy boards shot down plans for her property.
Suzanne Lewis-Brown moved from Mount Airy when she was 17 years old. After travelling the country and the world, the senior citizen decided to buy a house at 501 South Main St. in Mount Airy.
Brown, who has a permanent residence in Chapel Hill, said the home was built in the 1840s. It was badly dilapidated when she dropped $109,000 on it. She has invested more than $100,000 in repairs and remodeling at the site.
“I finished the project in record time,” remarked Lewis-Brown, who bought the property in 2015 and soon had her bed and breakfast up and running.
Now a home once filled with mold, mildew and broken pipes is Cousin Emma’s Bed and Breakfast. Lewis-Brown’s problem, however, is while completing the remodeling effort she fell from a ladder, shattering both knees. That incident led the woman, who is in her 70s, to receive two knee replacements.
Now she finds daily life and keeping up with the operations of her local business difficult at best.
“My disability is permanent,” Lewis-Brown said.
Thus, she concocted a plan which she feels would make life easier. However, since Cousin Emma’s is in Mount Airy’s historical district, Lewis-Brown was required to get her plans for installing a circular driveway at the home approved by Mount Airy’s Historic Preservation Committee (HPC).
Historic Preservation Committee
“The circular drive would allow me to pull up to my front steps,” explained Lewis-Brown. “In the old days circular drives were common. You can’t back up a horse and wagon.”
However, the HPC saw the plans differently. In a quasi-judicial hearing in May, the commission unanimously denied Lewis-Brown’s application for a certificate of appropriateness for the circular drive.
Commission member Glenda Creech spoke most adamantly in opposition to Lewis-Brown’s request, according to the minutes of the meeting.
“She (Creech) stated that she went back to her archives and found that the committee has denied two driveway applications in the past that had requested parking in the front of buildings, including the City’s Municipal Building,” read the minutes.
When City Planner Will Linville responded that Lewis-Brown’s customers would not use the drive for parking, Creech noted the drive would still be used for parking since Lewis-Brown’s own vehicle would be present in front of the building.
Creech then went on to relay her assessment of Lewis-Brown’s medical conditions to the board.
“Ms. Creech added that Ms. Lewis-Brown told her she had a bad knee when she had bought the house but managed to up-fit the house nonetheless. She continued with some more history of her phone interaction with Ms. Lewis-Brown,” read the minutes.
“She made a point to tell a story about an incident of where Ms. Lewis-Brown was chasing the garbage truck down the street. This statement was to make the point that she was in much better shape before she had the surgery and, according to Ms. Lewis-Brown, cannot get out of her house in Chapel Hill without calling the fire department to assist her.”
In a subsequent interview, Lewis-Brown took issue with Creech’s personal assessment of her medical condition, noting neither story is true.
“That’s ridiculous,” remarked Lewis-Brown.
Despite Lewis-Brown’s issues with Creech’s remarks, Mount Airy’s Historic District Guidelines seem to make it clear allowing a circular driveway in the district would be an exception to the rule.
“Driveways usually led directly to the backyard, sometimes to a carriage house or a garage,” the guidelines explain.
Lewis-Brown’s property has a single-lane shared driveway with a neighbor which leads to the rear of the home. The guidelines note the driveway would have been a common set-up generations ago.
The guidelines also back Creech’s argument against parking spaces in front of a home or building.
“It is not appropriate to locate a new off-street parking area in a district with residential character where it is visible from the street, where it will significantly alter the proportion of built area to yard area on the individual site, or it will directly abut the principal structure.”
Following the unanimous vote of the committee, Lewis-Brown was left with two options. She could work with city staff to find a new solution or she could appeal the decision to Mount Airy’s Board of Adjustments.
Linville noted city staff attempted to find another way to meet Lewis-Brown’s needs, including a lift or a ramp at the rear entrance to the home. None of them appealed to Lewis-Brown, and she opted to appeal the decision to the Board of Adjustments (BOA).
Board of Adjustments
Due to concerns related to her health, Lewis-Brown was not able to attend the historical preservation committee meeting. However, she made the trip from Chapel Hill to attend the board of adjustments meeting held on June 21.
City Attorney Hugh Campbell opened the hearing by explaining the BOA need only consider what was included in the record created at the preservation committee meeting when making its decision. It was at the BOA’s discretion to allow Lewis-Brown to testify and include additional documentation regarding her medical condition into the record.
The board voted unanimously to allow the testimony and the documentation to be included.
Lewis-Brown’s testimony, according to audio recordings provided by city staff, mainly regarded her medical condition.
She noted the steps at the front of the home were much easier for her to navigate than those at the rear of the home. She also stated a fused vertebrae, resulting from an auto accident decades ago, greatly inhibited her ability to operate her car in reverse.
Campbell questioned whether the small amount of frontage was conducive to a circular drive at the location.
Lewis-Brown noted she had garnered the opinions of construction personnel in the field, and though it would be only one lane and smaller than most circular drives, the project could be brought to completion. Lewis-Brown also planned to work with Surry Community College to nicely landscape the yard.
She believed the landscaping would steer any attention from the circular drive.
Left with many options, including remanding the request back to the preservation committee with the additional information included in the record, the BOA voted 6-3 to uphold the committee’s decision.
Lewis-Brown said she has invested dollars, time and passion into her home on South Main Street, but the fight for her proposed circular driveway has emotionally exhausted her.
The property owner’s next step would be to appeal the decision to Superior Court, said City Planning Director Andy Goodall.
However, Lewis-Brown said, having exhausted much of her funds earmarked for the bed and breakfast, she may not be appealing the decision.
She said she’s left considering the fate of her beloved home, wondering whether it’s time to simply put the property into which she breathed new life on the market.
Andy is a staff writer and may be reached at 415-4698.