A retired couple has sued Astoria to force the approval of window replacements in a historic house over the objections of the Lower Columbia Preservation Society.
Thomas and Priscilla Levy bought the house at 16th Street and Grand Avenue in August and retired from Portland.
The couple submitted an application in September to replace 19 white pine window frames in the house with Fibrex, a composite of reclaimed wood fiber and thermoplastic polymer made by Andersen Windows & Doors. Thomas Levy argued that the old windows were beyond repair, with black mold and deterioration.
“The same building materials that were available in the 19th century are no longer available,” he said. “You can’t get clear white pine anymore, and if you could get clear white pine, it would be ridiculously expensive.”
State law requires cities to make a decision on such land use applications within 120 days. City staff initially recommended denial, calling on the Levys to repair the windows or use historically accurate materials. Hearings on the project lasted three months while staff gathered more information from the Levys and the window manufacturer.
The Historic Landmarks Commission ultimately approved the newer window materials in December, finding the old windows beyond repair and Fibrex a suitable replacement. The approval required the Levys to match the old style of windows precisely.
The preservation society, a nonprofit promoting historical architecture, appealed the approval to the City Council. Doug Thompson, the chairman of the board for the preservation society, said they believe the Historic Landmarks Commission erred in not following a city ordinance that prioritizes repair of the windows first.
“People move to Astoria from other areas, and they buy historic homes, and they do so because they want to live in and own a historic home,” said Thompson, who used to serve on the City Council. “And Astoria doesn’t look the way it does by accident. That’s why we’ve had this ordinance on the books for more than a quarter of a century.”
The city scheduled an appeals hearing for Jan. 19, one business day beyond the 120-day deadline. Missing the deadline allowed the Levys to file a writ of mandamus, a legal remedy asking the Circuit Court to compel the city to finalize the Historic Landmarks Commission’s approval of replacing the windows, and to pay their attorney fees.
City Attorney Blair Henningsgaard said he does not believe Astoria will defend against the writ of mandamus. City Manager Brett Estes said there has been no decision yet on what to do.
“The appellants in this case, the Lower Columbia Preservation Society, will have the opportunity to come in and participate and defend the suit if they want,” he said. “That’s kind of where it sits.”
Henningsgaard said a response is due by late February. Thompson said the board for the preservation society would meet with their attorney before deciding whether to defend against the writ.
The court’s ruling on the Levys’ application would not be a land use decision, Henningsgaard said, and would not create a precedent for other historic properties.
Priscilla Levy said there should be disclosures by real estate companies about the ramifications of buying a historic home and financial support for people being forced to make historically accurate repairs.
Thompson argued that such resources exist, such as special assessments to freeze the value of historic properties while they undergo repairs. He argued that repairing the existing windows or replacing them with the original materials would ultimately cost less than using Fibrex.
“There are resources available locally, but it does require an effort on the part of the homeowner to kind of sweat the details,” Thompson said. “Seemingly, the path of least resistance — albeit the more expensive one — is out with the old and in with the new.”