Watchdog

Time running out for London historic home

The Pennington House in downtown London was built around 1875. The  Victorian home was once owned by Dr. Henry Pennington, who founded what is now Marymount Hospital.
The Pennington House in downtown London was built around 1875. The Victorian home was once owned by Dr. Henry Pennington, who founded what is now Marymount Hospital.

A group of Laurel County preservationists have until Monday to come up with as much as $750,000 to save a house built in 1875 from being razed to make way for more parking spaces for the Laurel County Judicial Center.

That two-week extension was granted by the county's project development board, which oversaw the construction of the $23 million judicial center in downtown London. The board members said they would swap the property where the house is, which is already under contract to the board for $397,750, if preservationists could buy a $750,000 site nearby to use for parking.

If they can't find the money, the Victorian structure known as the Pennington House will be another historic casualty of the nearly $1 billion courthouse construction program across the state.

"I have a 20 percent hope that we might have the funding by Monday," said Donna Horn-Taylor, the London resident who is spearheading efforts to save the house. "But I'm afraid it will get demolished."

The project development board had roughly $1.4 million left in their budget after the judicial center was built. Attorney Tom Weatherly, who uses Pennington House as an office, agreed to sell the land after he has cleared the site. A gravel lot will be put in once the house is torn down. Officials hope they'll then be able to build a two-story garage with federal funds.

There is another parking garage two blocks away that was built with $5 million in federal funds a few years ago, but Laurel County Judge Executive Lawrence Kuhl said on court days at the judicial center and the nearby federal courthouse, there's still a need for more parking spaces.

"On court days, people park all over the place," he said.

Kuhl said the parking situation meant that the development board never considered using the $1.4 million to pay down the bond the county issued to build the judicial center. The state Administrative Office of the Courts, which oversees the state's courts, then pays off that debt by renting the space from the county.

AOC officials declined to comment on the Laurel situation, saying decisions had to be made by the local board.

Potential roadblock

Kuhl shrugs off another potential snag: Federal funding requested from U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, could be complicated because tearing down the house could violate the National Historic Preservation Act.

"We don't know that's true," Kuhl said in a phone interview.

Craig Potts is the site protection program manager for the Kentucky Heritage Council, which is the designated agency for making sure that federal law is upheld when federal grants are used.

"If you want federal funding and you knowingly impact the environment in anticipation of that funding, such as removing a known historic site, that could be looked upon unfavorably," said Potts, who also told Kuhl this in a letter. "I use this as an extreme example: It's as if you know you have an endangered species on a project area, so you get rid of them before you apply for a permit."

Horn-Taylor said she doesn't think the house is in good enough shape to be moved to another site. That's why she's hoping to be able to raise enough money to buy the nearby property.

The alternative lot's sale price is $750,000, although it has not yet been appraised, Horn-Taylor said.

Kuhl says he wishes them good luck.

"We'll work with them if they can come up with the money to preserve it (the Pennington House) and leave in place," Kuhl said.

Weatherly declined to comment.

'Parking lots everywhere'

State Sen. Tom Jensen, R-London, whose office is close to the new judicial center, said parking can be a problem on busy days, but says he sees both sides of the issue.

"It's his (Weatherly's) property, and he has a right to do what he wants with it," Jensen said.

For him, the bigger question is how to develop London's downtown.

"We can't just have parking lots everywhere," said Jensen, who is the co-chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

But the House Judiciary Committee co-chair, Rep. John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, sees the Laurel County situation as part of the overall courthouse construction program, which is aimed at building a new courthouse in every county, and has received little oversight in the past decade, despite nearly $1 billion in state funding.

Problems have included the demolition of historic buildings, lavish courthouses that are too big for declining county populations, and a system that awarded most building and financing contracts to a few politically connected firms.

"I think there has to be some additional oversight," Tilley said. "We have to be more careful about the amount of money we've allocated. They can be built a little smaller, maybe a little less aggressively."

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