By C.V. Moore
The ownership of a crumbling, historic wall in downtown Fayetteville is causing some confusion. No one is quite sure yet who may be ultimately responsible for its estimated $200,000 repair.
The town, the adjoining property owners, and the state have all denied owning the beautiful but expensive stone work.
In the mean time, council members are worried that the 100-year-old structure on Keller Avenue could hurt someone if and when it falls down.
“These walls are a treasure to our community,” said town attorney Larry Harrah. “They really bring a great historic value, and the town wants to work with the citizens to try to figure out how we can go about fixing the problem.”
The Keller Avenue wall is a part of the town’s historic district. It is one of a set also found on Court Street and Maple Avenue.
The sandstone structures were built as retaining walls by one of several local Italian masons between 1910 and 1920, according to a 1990 study of Fayetteville’s historic district.
“Fayetteville was fortunate during its period of residential growth following the turn of the century in having several families who were skilled in the craft of stone masonry,” according to the study.
These Italian families included the Zorios, Peraldos and Janutolos, who also built many of the stone foundations in town.
“(The walls) continue to serve their original purpose in an effective manner, extending for long distances with breaks and interruptions,” concludes the report.
But 20 years after the report was written, their effectiveness is starting to weaken.
The Keller Avenue wall has buckled at an approximate 17 degree angle, and pieces have already started to shed themselves into the street. The city put up traffic barrels and caution tape to try to steer people away.
Another wall on Court Street is leaning at an 11 degree angle; it was already patched once with cinder blocks.
At November’s city council meeting, Zane Summerfield, an engineer with Pentree, provided a cost estimate for repairing the wall. The total came to nearly $200,000.
Everyone up to that point had assumed the walls were the city’s responsibility, and council members were wondering where the money would come from to make repairs. Nervously, they discussed the safety and liability issues involved.
But Summerfield reported at the November meeting that a surveyor at the firm had concluded from looking at deeds and other documents that the wall actually sits on private property and is not the city’s at all.
The surveyor, Gary Shields, says that maps of the property from 1949 and 1970 both note that the right of way runs along the base of the wall.
Letters were sent to the people who own land adjoining the wall, officially notifying them the city does not own the property on which the wall rests.
But one of the property owners, Harry Fuller, has come to a different conclusion after looking at the relevant documents.
He told the Fayetteville town council at a December meeting the maps indicate that lead “plugs” on the top of the wall establish the property’s boundaries. Fuller says this plug is lodged in the middle of the top of the wall, leading him to conclude that he only owns half the wall.
“Only half the wall is on my property and the other half is on someone else’s property,” he told council.
Shields says a field survey has not been done to determine where the plugs actually sit in the wall — the center, the front edge, or back edge. The buckling wall is also clearly not in its original position, further complicating matters.
“Without physically knowing actually where those plugs are or where they were in their original positions, there’s no way to be certain,” he told The Register-Herald.
Nevertheless, Shields says both the maps refer to the base of the wall as the dividing line, and it would be “not the norm” to divide a property along the middle of a wall.
Fuller also presented council with information from several historic documents, including the 1990 report and a 1930 history of Fayetteville that discusses the issuance of a bond by the town to build a sidewalk in 1911, reinforced by a stone wall.
“As of now, there’s no documentation that the wall belongs to the town. We are still looking into it to find some solution,” said Fayetteville mayor James Akers.
“We’ve done our homework. We don’t want to be contentious, but according to our experts, these aren’t our walls,” said Harrah.
“That’s not saying we’re not going to work with folks, because we understand the tremendous financial burden that will be placed on townspeople to fix those walls. So we’re going to do what we can to help too.
“We don’t want to get in a big battle over these walls. We want to save them like everybody else.”
The town sought grant money for the fix but so far has not been able to obtain appropriate funding. According to Shields, the City of Bluefield has been successful in obtaining grant funding to replace a substantial stone wall built on private property by the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression.
The state Division of Highways has told Fayetteville they don’t own the wall either.
Council tabled the issue for further study.
“It’s a problem for the community. If the town does decide they want to fix it, it’s going to be expensive,” said Summerfield.
At least for now, the wall’s fate is in limbo. Everyone wants to save it, but no one yet wants to own it.
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