Give priority to you physical and mental health
Note: With the shutdown of the yahoogroups links and the (hopefully temporary) disappearance of greendel.org, quite a few links to past documents are no longer working. We are trying to get this fixed.
I previously wrote about “historic preservation” in the context of cultural resources vs natural resources. My own thinking, essentially is that cultural resources (old houses and such are in this category) are valuable to connect us with out past and help us understand who and what we are. The aren’t, however, as important to protect as natural resource such as clean air and water.
See “How I set myself up to be driven out of Delaware #2“
Note that some of what I write here is universal, such as the health hazards in old buildings. Other may be unique to the strange realities of Delaware.
Give priority to your health
Before going on, I want to be clear that nobody in their right mind should take on the personal stewardship of an historic property, if only because of the health hazards. My own venture into this exposed me to lead, arsenic, mercury, asbestos, silica dust, soot, and things like 8 foot deep deposits of bat droppings. Electrical hazards are common in old houses. These hazards can be managed by professionals, but usually at a cost that isn’t realistic for a homeowner unless he or she is a one percenter. I have little doubt that my health has been impacted.
There are very few protections. I recall a call from an unhappy outreach worker at the Delaware Division of Public Health. She wanted to do a presentation on safe management of lead hazards at a meeting of “Preservation Delaware” and was being made unwelcome. I don’t recall how that turned out.
Especially, children should not live in old housing if it can possibly be avoided. The younger we are, the more vulnerable we are to environmental hazards such as lead. There is no safe level of lead and any amount impairs intelligence. Anyone can see that our society needs all the intellect it can muster.
So, if you are tempted by an older property, unless you really know what you are about and have extensive resources, and don’t have kids, run, don’t walk, away.
A little background
I took on the “Stewart House” in Port Penn, Delaware, for a mix of reasons that seemed reasonable at the time. The location was somewhat intermediate between Wilmington and Dover. The “sweat equity” would be a form of savings account, and help me balance my life between desk work and physical activity. I failed to anticipate many things, and it turned into an nightmare.
The house itself was likely the worst-looking property one could imagine. Surrounded by rotting Victorian additions, a large rotting barn in the yard, the previous inhabitants had buried their trash and garbage in the yard…. No maintenance had been done for many years. It was, to put it mildly, a mess. It was, however, a house with some significant history. It was probably built in the middle 1700s. (A group at the University of Delaware received a grant to “document” the house, but failed to establish when and by whom it was built.) There is a story of a cannonball in one of the chimneys from a bombardment of the village by the British Royal Navy during the War of 1812. (I’ve never found it.) The walls are solid brick, 15-18 inches thick–hundreds of thousands of bricks, possibly made on site. One can look at the saw marks on wooden beams and see that some were sawn out by hand, some by a reciprocating sawmill (18th-19th century technology) and some with circular saw blades (late 19th-20th century technology.
It was interesting to research some history and to think about the lives of people who had lived there. Why, for instance, were the ceilings in the (presumably) servants quarters over the kitchen so low that a modern person couldn’t stand up straight? There were remains of a gas lighting system using acetylene generated in a pit in the backyard. There was no usable plumbing or electrical system, but there was a collapsing outhouse in the woods behind.
Initially, progress was good. The rotting structures were removed and the house began to look more like it’s original form. archeological digs were carried out–at my invitation–by staff of the department of Natural Resource and Environmental Control. Community people were generally welcoming and supportive. We were on track to a successful project. But I hadn’t reckoned on New Castle County, Delaware.
One of the peculiarities of Delaware is that there are no townships. For most people, unless they live in a city or town, the first level of government is the county, which has “land use” authority, which includes “code enforcement.” The counties exist primarily to service developers and are not very responsive to individual and neighborhood concerns. Many see them as corrupt. Port Penn, although it has existed as a community for several hundred years, is “unincorporated,” having no government of it’s own.
It had never occurred to me that, not having bothered the previous inhabitants of the house as it collapsed around them, that New Castle County would hound me for fixing it up. But that’s how it went.
Background on “code enforcement:” There exists a “property maintenance code.” There also exists a long tradition of using “code enforcement” powers to harass activists. Every property has code violations. In a property with 250 years or so of deferred maintenance there are many. So the County cited me for having cracked caulk in window sash. For visitors parting on the grass. For dozens of things, over and over again. Fines reached thousands of dollars.
Why: As spokesperson for Green Delaware I had often criticized New Castle County for servility to developers and failure to protect natural resources. I ought to have realized–how dumb can I get?–that having an old house in new Castle County would leave me open to retaliation.
Item: The “County Executive” of New Castle County was Tom Gordon, former Chief of County Police. Gordon was indicted by the United States Attorney, as was his chief administrative officer, also a former chief of county police. From Wikipedia: “Gordon was charged with corruption, racketeering, and mail fraud in May 2004. He and Sherry Freeberry were indicted by a grand jury for, among other things, ordering county employees to work on private political campaigns while on duty.” After beating many but not all of the charges, Gordon was re-elected County Executive. Maybe this ought to tell you all you really need to know. (Gordon has also claimed a close association with the Joe Biden “crime bills” that lead to mass incarceration & etc.)
Item: Delaware has an archaic court system where relatively minor crimes–lots of traffic cases–are handled in “Justice of the Peace Courts,” or “Magistrate Courts.” In these, the “judges” are usually not lawyers, and no records of the proceedings are kept. The safety valve in this system is that people can have their cases transferred to real courts, and can have their cases reheard. However, New Castle County code violation cases can’t be transferred and effectively can’t be appealed. But it gets worse: New Castle County complained to the state legislature that the Justice of the Peace courts were too lenient, not always doing to offenders exactly what county prosecutors wanted. An investigating committee was set up, and the political pressure created a situation where the Justices of the Peace simply convicted and sentenced according to County demands. Aside from the personal sense of harassment and helplessness, it was sickening to see old people and poor people fined in this way. How did this help them maintain their properties? More upcoming on the slimy relationship between county and state.
I’m going to stop here except to note–details later–that New Castle County now apparently simply demands “civil fines” from offenders, not taking them to court at all. Maybe this is because the County can simply pocket the fines?
Gordon’s successor, Chris Coons (now a senator) was no better. See
Evil in a small place�harassment and selective prosecution by New Castle County
Alert 626: Justice in Delaware: fined $3,751 for �property maintenance code� violations.
I though I had a pretty thick skin. Advocating for environmental protection and open government in Delaware is no light duty. I could deal with the General Assembly, the Capital Police, etc. But I couldn’t deal with harassment in and about my own home. Thuggish “inspectors” pounding on my door…. Every mail delivery bringing more demands and threats. Abusive courts. Emotionally and financially I could not handle it. Maybe I should be stronger? And life is supposed to be enjoyed, not just endured. So I am very pleased to be in Minnesota, imperfect as that state also is.
So just imagine the trauma of being a person of color, never safe or secure. Having to worry that every time your kid left the house, police might kill him.
I wish I had a reasonable path out of the uncompleted Stewart House project in Delaware. I would happily promise never, ever, to set foot in Delaware again.
Of course, none of this means that ordinary New Castle County employees are personally evil. It’s “the system” that’s evil.
And again, give priority to your health, physical and mental.