An Orange Avenue homeowner who made exterior changes to his home without Historic Preservation Commission approval will have to reverse one of the adjustments he executed.

The HPC voted Thursday to require Lew Mitchell to locate a balustrade, or decorative railing, that topped the porch of his home and reinstall it. If he cannot locate the specific balustrade, he must submit design plans of a similar replacement in three months for the HPC’s consideration.

Mitchell, who lived in Birmingham before relocating to Dothan, said he was unaware the house was located in a historical district when he bought it. Mitchell, who also painted the brick home white, had to retroactively request the HPC’s approval for the changes he made.

“I would have loved to do the right thing,” he said.

Mitchell’s case has caused the HPC to discuss how it can inform the public about its rules and enforce them at multiple meetings – including one in February and on Thursday. The HPC must approve changes to the exterior of buildings and homes in the city’s historic districts.

City officials usually allow property owners 10 days to correct unapproved issues. If owners fail to comply, the HPC has the power to summon them to city court – where the owners could face six months in jail and/or a $500 fine for each day the violation continues to exist.

Some members hinted that could be harsh, especially given ignorance of city rules and the inability to easily reverse some exterior changes. Board member Pete McInish, an attorney, said ignorance of historical designations cannot excuse violations.

“As a law is concerned, we’re charged to know the law. I’m saying whether or not Mr. Mitchell knew or not is not material,” he said. “When this happens again, our hands are tied. I’m not trying to be hard. I’m trying to be realistic.”

Later in the meeting, McInish noted the establishment of a formal homeowners association would help realtors and closing attorneys identify which homes exist in the Houston Heights Historical District – perhaps preventing future cases. Chairman Wes Grant, a Realtor, noted Dothan-area Realtors must now include information about historical designations on their listings as a result of Mitchell’s case.

Board member Seaborn Wood IV said the educational and enforcement aspects are a separate argument and that board members should evaluate the request as it appeared before them. Wood pointed out that several homes around Mitchell’s have been painted.

Other board members, including vice-chairman Michael Jackson, said the commission would likely have required Mitchell to keep the balustrade.

Jackson moved to table the overall action pending the restoration of the balustrade, which Bart Liddon seconded. The commission approved the request.

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