Plans to burn down historic Saluda structure ignites debate 

Published 11:46 am Thursday, February 15, 2024

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Saluda residents concerned about environmental issues, loss of history


SALUDA—The new owner of a historic home in the City of Saluda has asked the local fire department to burn down the structure as part of a controlled training exercise, sparking concerns from local residents who wish to preserve the structure and worry about contamination of the environment due to the possibility of asbestos and lead-based paint used in its construction.

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Located on a property known as Crystal Springs at 291 Henderson St., the Ashley House is located just two blocks from Main Street and was originally built as a boarding house for railroad workers in 1899 or 1900. 

Cindy Tuttle, chair of the Historic Saluda Committee, said that the house is one of the most, if not the most, historic homes left standing in Saluda. It was one of the first properties to have indoor plumbing and running water in Saluda, Tuttle says.

“There are a lot of people who care about this issue. The phone calls, texts and emails aren’t stopping,” she says. “Our biggest concern right now is that it’s an environmental issue.”

The buyer of the property decided there was too much damage to the structure to be restored and offered it to the City of Saluda to be burned after hiring two contractors to inspect it and being informed that the house should be condemned and is uninsurable, according to Tuttle.

The Saluda Board of Commissioners discussed the issue at its meeting on Monday and heard comments from the public.

“Commenters expressed their desire to save what is viewed as a historically significant structure, as well as concerns about the presence of lead-based paint and asbestos in the structure and the impact these plans may have on the environment,” the board said in an official statement after the meeting. “The City advised those in attendance that it does not have authority over this matter … and encourages the community to work with the Historic Saluda Committee and for private property owners and businesses to act collaboratively to preserve those structures of historical importance to Saluda’s history.”  

Polk County Fire Marshal Bobby Arledge said that a demolition permit would be required from the county to ensure all utilities were disconnected before any burn could take place.

“North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality and the state fire marshal would also have to be sure any asbestos was removed before the structure was burned down,” said Arledge. “Inspectors would need to check for asbestos and if found, it would all have to be removed. We have no regulatory authority at the county level on whether or not the structure can be burned.”

There is no lead-based paint statute in North Carolina as it pertains to the demolition of a structure.

One concerned resident who attended the Monday meeting, Marlin Beckham, says Crystal Springs is a landmark in Saluda.

“It’s a very much talked about issue in Saluda right now,” said Beckham. “The biggest shock for us is that the fire department would burn a house in a neighborhood with people around. It never occurred to me in a million years that anyone would intentionally burn a property with human lungs around, regardless of lead paint and things. The smoke is not good for us. 

“The main thing right now is we want to stop the burning of this house. We’re not giving up, we’re going to fight this in every way that we can. We’ll be at every meeting we can.” 

According to Tuttle, Jack Thomson with the Raleigh-based nonprofit Preservation North Carolina said at a Historic Saluda Committee meeting that the organization was prepared to make an offer on the house. In an email, she expressed that she believes the decision to proceed with the planned burn was rushed.

“There’s concern that the property owner’s decision to burn the house has come too hastily,” she said, “especially considering the State Preservation Office and Preservation North Carolina, with whom we have worked over the years, had toured the house not long ago, and has stated they have seen historic homes in considerably worse condition that have been able to be preserved. The firm JMT was hired through the State of North Carolina to survey the house last year, and they identified it as a historic property of recordation, with no mention of possible need for demolition.

“We recommended that the City support Preservation North Carolina in its efforts to purchase Crystal Springs, which would also place a preservation easement or covenant on the property to ensure its preservation. We ask the City to ask the new property owners for a reprieve and to take no steps at this time to destroy Crystal Springs, including doing any practice burns.”

According to a real estate listing, the property sold on January 19 and is no longer on the market.

There are tentative plans for the structure to be burned down in late March or April, yet no official date has been set, according to the local fire department.

“That gives time for the appropriate paperwork to be filled out, and for all the testing to be done and risks to be mitigated,” said Saluda Fire & Rescue Chief Robert Dellinger. 

Teddy McNamara of California, who owns the property, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.