Editorial: Saving history on Whidbey Island

It's too common on Whidbey Island, particularly Central Whidbey, to see a treasured old homesite fall to developers, or just someone who wants to build a modern home in the same spot.

The most recent case involves the Libbey House on North Main Street in Coupeville, where it has been a fixture for nearly 140 years. Hackles were raised when local developer Ted Clifton purchased the property, soon announced the house was likely beyond repair, and said he would apply for a building permit for a new structure. He hopes to be able to move the 139-year-old dwelling rather than demolish it.

There are protections in law for historic structures, but there are plenty of loopholes to be exploited by a developer, or a would-be homeowner who simply doesn't have the money for a costly makeover. In many cases, once the property is purchased by someone willing to sacrifice the historic structure, it's too late to save it.

The Libbey House saga will play out in its own time. Hopefully, a way can be found to save the structure in its present location. Rather than fighting it out at public meetings and in court, community members should work with Clifton to fully understand the situation. This is just a guess, but if he had a cadre of willing volunteer laborers with a positive attitude at his disposal, the cost of saving the building might be less prohibitive and his attitude about the opposition might improve.

The Libbey House is far from the only historic structure threatened with extinction. The community needs to take a positive approach with these structures. Sometimes one will sit on the market for months, with everyone sitting back and hoping it doesn't sell. A better way would be to help the property owner find a suitable buyer, one willing to restore the building and be a welcome new member to the community.

Historic homes for sale could be posted on the town's Web site and chamber Web site, with links to possible funding sources for rehabilitation assistance. Provide contact numbers to local builders who know what restoration is needed. Tantalize would-be purchasers with tax breaks, such as fixing the property tax rate at the present amount for five years, as renovation takes place. Have some fun, promise the restorer a ceremony where he or she will be awarded the key to the city, or, in Coupeville's case, the unlocked latch to the town. The ideas are literally endless.

Whidbey Island is blessed with thousands of bright people anxious to save our heritage. Let's put them to work on saving historic buildings before it's too late.

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