Bradford-Nohra Ruling Leads to Sequel

Hyde Park neighborhood fights Hyde Park family over Hyde Park home, Part II

A legal battle over the preservation of a Hyde Park home is headed for a rematch, with the property owners making another attempt to demolish the crumbling structure while the opposition vows to continue its fight to protect the century-old house.

The dispute, which began in early 2008, pits the owners of the Bradford-Nohra home against the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association. The group seeks to preserve the semi neo-classical home located on one of the neighborhood's most prominent corners – Avenue G and 43rd Street – near the historic Elisabet Ney Museum and Shipe Park.

In a recent ruling, District Court Judge Rhonda Hurley gave the neighborhood association the upper hand in the debate, ordering the city of Austin to pay HPNA's legal fees and rejecting the city's issuance of a demolition permit to Sylvia Dudney, whose 97-year-old mother, Helen Nohra, has lived in the home for 67 years.

On the other hand, the court also invalidated the Historic Landmark Commission's initial 3-2 vote favoring the neighborhood association's bid to gain historic-zoning status for the home. The City Council in 2009 appeared poised to follow the HLC's recommendation, but the case abruptly veered off course when city staffers switched gears and issued the demolition permit before the council could officially declare the home historic.

Staff members had taken matters into their own hands after researching a 2007 amendment to a boards and commissions ordinance. Under the amended rule, the Historic Landmark Commission would have required a greater voting majority to render a valid decision in the case. (It remains unclear how the "supermajority" amendment may have affected similar decisions made by the HLC and other boards that had not yet come into compliance with the revised rule.)

Before a bulldozer could level the home, HPNA obtained a temporary restraining order to block the demolition. The case then parked itself at the Travis County courthouse for more than a year. See "The Battle Over This Old House," June 12, 2009.

The court's ruling this month appears only to have strengthened the Nohra family's resolve to flatten the home, which has continued to deteriorate. The once-stately home has gone through several transformations over the years, and none of the changes has served to enhance or maintain its historic appeal. A large addition juts out at an odd angle, the original wood framing is covered with stucco, the colonial-revival style windows have been replaced, and an open "sleeping porch" on the second floor is now enclosed.

Dudney rejects suggestions that the family deliberately allowed the home to fall into a state of disrepair. Financial and health hardships interfered with the family's ability to maintain the home, she said. As Dudney explains, her mother is a three-time cancer survivor whose sole source of income is her Social Security. While Dudney and her two siblings cover the cost of their mother's property taxes, utilities, caregivers, and other needs, there is not much money to pay for anything else. She said when they decided three years ago to take out a mortgage of about $100,000 to pay for major repairs, the bids they received just to bring the house up to code were in the $1 million range. "We just couldn't justify putting that kind of money into this house, let alone trying to pay back a mortgage of that magnitude," she said.  

The family then proceeded to plan B: replacing the house with two new residences – one to be occupied by Helen Nohra and the other to be sold to help pay for the project. That's when the neighborhood association moved to stop the destruction of the home, which sits on a landmark corner that recalls the bygone days of the trolley car.

"I'm certainly not happy about Judge Hurley's decision," Dudney said, adding that in her view, neither side actually won. "We are having to go through the process again, and the court did not declare this house historical," she said. Dudney does not mince words when expressing her anger over how a neighborhood's influence can trump the rights of an individual property owner. "I wish I had that kind of political clout," she said.

The Bradford-Nohra case is just one of many battles in play as the city attempts to find a middle ground between neighborhood preservation and property rights. At the same time, the city has sharpened its watch over an important revenue stream: The more historical zoning protections the city grants, the more money the city loses to tax abatements. Who knew that preserving Austin's beloved past while protecting its future would become such a Catch-22?

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Bradford-Nohra House, Hyde Park Neighborhood Association, Sylvia Dudney, Helen Nohra, Historic Landmark Commission

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