VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — Protecting historical sites is a source of pride for many Virginians. But some concerned citizens have grown increasingly more frustrated with the agency that’s supposed to protect those properties, the Department of Historic Resources.
One of the sites gaining attention is the Weblin Farm House in Virginia Beach.
Built in 1670, it’s the oldest home in Virginia Beach. Some historians argue it could be the oldest home in the commonwealth.
In the 1990s, the home and surrounding 6.5 acres was donated by Dorothy Moore to the Virginia Historic Preservation Foundation, now the Department of Historic Resources. Moore created a trust outlining her wishes for the property.
The trust reads in part “no building or structure will be built or maintained on the Weblin Property other than the Weblin house, reconstruction of historic out buildings, or structures which are documented.” Her family says she envisioned the Weblin Farm becoming a sort of museum for future generations to enjoy, like the Lynnhaven House or the Thoroughgood House. Weblin Farm predates both of those properties by about 50 years.
After Moore’s death, the trust was used to place an easement on the property. Easements are legal documents outlining how the home will be preserved while allowing it to remain in private ownership. The state then sold the property.
The current owner has proposed numerous development plans to DHR. The most recent plans show blueprints for 11 new multi-family units and 48 parking spaces on the property. The plan appears to violate multiple clauses in the easement, especially the paragraph outlining construction, which reads: “No building or structure shall be built or maintained on the Easement property other than (i) THE WEBLIN HOUSE … (ii) buildings or structures commonly or appropriately incidental to a single family residence, including but not limited to a garage, guest house, and garden structures.”
In 2016, DHR conceptually approved the development project. Documents show they also granted numerous year-long extensions of the approval since.
When Dorothy Moore’s children and grandchildren learned of the plan, they were stunned.
“We were all shocked,” said Moore’s grandson, Brad Smith. ‘We didn’t think that could be done.”
So why was this approval given?
“We can’t answer,” explained Elizabeth Tune, the Director of Division of Preservation Incentives for DHR. “The project is under review and that’s a back and forth between us and the property owner.”
In order for the townhouse project to move forward, the property would have to be rezoned. Over the summer Virginia Beach City Council shot down the rezoning request with a unanimous 11-0 vote.
This isn’t the only issue alarming citizens and the Moore family. DHR already granted final approval for other projects that arguably violate the easement. For example, a large modern addition to the old house.
“Why was she allowed to do that?” Smith asked. “That’s absolutely against the easement and the trust.”
DHR has to approve any and all changes to the properties they oversee. Weblin Farm has a number of visible changes made in the last 20 years with no record of approval by DHR.
First there’s the guest house. It was expanded and converted into a rental duplex. An in-ground pool was also added with no record of any archaeological excavations executed prior to digging.
Dorothy Moore’s daughters, Judith and Susan, say their mother would have been horrified by what’s been done.
“It was not to be built, added on or built-on anymore than what was there already,” explained Judith Hernandez Moore. “Everything that she didn’t want to be done has been done. They even put in a swimming pool. And they’ve even added onto the old house. Breaks your heart.”
DHR is responsible for visiting the easement properties in person and keeping tracking track of violations. When violations occur, DHR can issue citations and levy small fines. They can sue. They can also go in, attempt to reverse the work, then pass the bill along to the property owner.
“Violations are not common but they do come up from time to time and unfortunately when they do some up they can be egregious and they can be hard to resolve,” Tune said.
Citizens we spoke to say the agency needs more backbone when it comes to enforcing violations. According to DHR they have no violations on record for the Weblin Farm property.
Another community group fought a similar battle in Alexandria over additions to the historic Hugo Black House. Neighbors argued the additions violated the property’s easement. DHR disagreed and granted final approval.
So what’s going on here?
Some suggest the agency might need more resources. According to the website, a team of five is responsible for around 700 properties.
“If you do the math there’s just not enough time in a year to go out an visit these properties,” Smith said.
“We can always use more resources for sure,” explained Tune. “But we do feel like we do a good job of monitoring our properties.”
The code is also more than 50 years old. Some say it could use an update.
“It started out as really a great idea, a great project to take and protect these homes,” said Delegate Chris Stolle. “When it was put in place they didn’t look at all the different things that people could try ways to maybe not follow what was intended. So the code has to evolve over time to keep track with how society changes and laws change. I think that’s one of the things that we need to go do when we go back to the General Assembly is take a look at the code again and say how do we modernize this a little bit to ensure that we’re actually protecting these properties.”
As for the Moore family, they want the work reversed and the farm restored to the way their mother left it and intended it to be left for perpetuity.
“People are not going to want to give their property to the historical society if it’s going to be tromped on the way that they have mutilated what my mother wanted,” said Judith Hernandez Moore.
The efforts to protect the Weblin Farm House and the Hugo Black House, were both initially spearheaded by groups of citizens alarmed by what was happening in their neighborhood. These community groups filed Freedom of Information Act requests, contacted their local governments and representatives and fought for the easements to be upheld. In the case of the Weblin Farm they connected with Dorothy Moore’s family and alerted them to concerns about the property.
Officials with the Department of Historic Resources say what goes on with easement properties is a private matter between them and the homeowner. They say there’s no room for public comment on decisions.
After our interview with DHR, 10 On Your Side learned the agency denied this year’s request for an extension on the conceptual approval of the townhouse project on DHR. We’ll never know if the community’s interest and passion to protect the home had anything to with DHR’s decision to deny the request.
Regardless, Delegate Stolle says the community’s efforts is a prime example of the American system at work.
“This is how this is supposed to work. Citizens in the community had a problem, they reached out to their elected leaders, they reached out to their city council, they reached out to the city government and they were engaged and this is how you get change this is how you make sure that things happen.”