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Metro Council Overturns Controversial Highlands Landmark Case

Courtesy Ted Stone

Preservationists' efforts to prevent a couple from demolishing their Highlands home may have reached their conclusion Thursday night.

The Metro Council voted 22-3 to overturn a local landmark designation recently put on the house that sits on a large, wooded lot on Tremont Drive.

The vote comes after months of back-and-forth between attorneys, preservationists and the landowners. It marks the first time the city council has overturned a ruling from the Landmarks Commission since it was granted authority to do so in 2012.

"I don't think this is a precedent that will happen continuously," said council president David Yates, countering a central claim by preservationists that the decision would create a precedent.

The owners, Sean and Genny Clifford, bought the home in 2015 for more than $600,000 with plans to renovate the antiquated structure into their "dream home," according to an op-ed they wrote in The Courier-Journal in October.

Plans changed, however, when they learned the renovation they envisioned would be too costly on the young family's budget. So they developed another plan: Demolish the existing home, split the large lot in half and build a new home on one half while selling off the other side.

That plan didn't sit well with neighbor Ted Stone.

He's lived in the neighborhood some two decades and said the house is "a genuine historic site." He led the petitioning effort to place a landmark designation on the house. Stone helped gather more than 800 signatures and presented the case to the city's Landmarks Commission, which voted to designate the house as a landmark earlier this year.

"The sensibility at the council level is just different," he said after the vote Thursday night.

Couple Will Proceed With Demolition Plans

A landmark designation "establishes a local oversight process for design review of all exterior alterations, demolition and new construction," according to the city's website. Violating the ordinance can lead to fines.

More than 80 houses, schools and cemeteries have been slated as landmarks since the commission was established by ordinance in 1973.

Councilman Tom Owen, a District 8 Democrat, voted in favor of keeping the landmark designation. The house is in his district. Council members Bill Hollander and Dan Johnson also voted against overturning the designation.

Owen is a historian and said there's no shame in wanting to see an old, local "farmhouse" remain for future generations.

"I think there is some significance, I think there is some pedigree on the house and I think, generally speaking, the neighborhood knew, from the beginning, the value of that house and its history," he said before the votes were cast.

Once the votes were tallied, the Cliffords stepped out of the council chambers and told reporters they felt relieved the "nightmare" was over.

"We can move forward with our lives," Genny Clifford said.

She said the family would proceed with their plan to demolish the house.

Sean Clifford said the couple is not "anti-history" or against preservation; it would have just cost too much to renovate the house. He said they even put the house on the market to give someone else the chance to breathe new life into it, but they got no takers.

"Nobody stepped up to the plate," he said.

Preservationists will have 30 days to appeal the decision. Randy Strobo, an attorney for Stone, said he was unsure whether his client would appeal.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.