CARY — There’s a half-painted building in the middle of downtown Cary.
It looks as if someone quit the job halfway through, leaving one brick wall covered by primer and another with only a few stripes – and the building’s likely to stay that way for at least a few weeks more, thanks to a legal tangle.
The troublesome touch-up started early in June. Having heard a few complaints about the condition of 108 E. Chatham St., building owners Dick and Jean Ladd had decided to put a coat of sepia tan paint on the bare exterior brick walls of the Kitchen & Bath Galleries store.
Not far into the job, “our painter was stopped in his tracks … and threatened by one of the town employees: ‘Stop right now or you’re going to be fined,’ ” Jean Ladd told the Cary Town Council in a courtroom-like proceeding at Town Hall late last month.
As the Ladds learned, Cary’s architectural appearance standards order that “the inherent color of brick, concrete, and stone be left in their natural state to weather over time.”
Hoping to finish the job, the family appealed first to staff for permission to paint, and then asked that the Cary Town Council review staff’s veto.
‘Couldn’t or shouldn’t’
News of the violation touched a nerve. Friends saw the Ladds as unwitting victims of an unpublicized rule, and the debacle played into Cary’s reputation for restrictive aesthetic rules.
Richard Ladd said his family believed the painting plan fit with Cary’s recent downtown improvement push.
The Ladds’ ancestors owned land in Cary dating to the 1920s, and family members today own the sites of The Green Kangaroo, The Purple Polka Dot, Serendipity and the half-white brick building at downtown’s main crossroads.
For months before the ill-fated paint job, the family had talked with town staff and a town-hired architect about potential aesthetic updates. The family never heard about the brick-painting rule during that time, according to Jean Ladd.
But Ed Gawf, Cary’s downtown guru, says he specifically warned the Ladds that “they couldn’t or shouldn’t” paint their brick.
In either case, the action violated the brick-and-concrete painting ban instituted in the mid-2000s, and town staff found no wiggle room.
So the Ladds tried again, paying $300 to bring the matter to the Cary Town Council.
At first, they heard the same message at Town Hall.
“Please understand, this isn’t about the character of these fine people,” said Nick Herman, an attorney from the Brough Law Firm, which represented town staff.
Unfortunately, he said, “there’s no choice here but to enforce the ordinance and have the paint removed.”
Reconsidering the rules
The Ladds were surprised to find themselves arguing against a hired attorney in such a formal setting as a quasi-judicial hearing on July 25. Staff had taken legal counsel because the special hearings require court-like rules about evidence and testimony.
The town had told the Ladds that their appeal would be quasi-judicial, but family members say they didn’t know about many of the specific rules. For example, their letter from a master mason was not admitted as evidence because it could not be cross examined.
Fortunately for the Ladds, a maneuver by the Cary Town Council opened an exit from the legal imbroglio. Councilman Don Frantz first suggested that the town simply change the rule. If a change to the ordinance is pending, code enforcement actions are frozen – so the council delayed its decision on the Ladds’ case, making plans to consider a new brick-painting rule.
If the rules change, the town might still consider brick-painting requests on a case-by-case basis, weighing aesthetic and preservation concerns, Gawf said.
And until those rules are inked, the brick building on the corner will stand half-painted.
The brick-paint affair isn’t the only aesthetic issue for 108 E. Chatham St. The property will not be part of a Chatham Street “streetscape,” the Ladds confirmed.
Town staff had hoped to wrap a fancy brick sidewalk down Chatham Street and around the Kitchen & Bath building, but the Ladds found they’d have to forfeit most of their parking to the town in order to participate.
Similarly, Fidelity Bank has declined to give up part of its frontage for a town beautification project, according to Gawf.
“That was sort of a disappointment,” he said.
And it might go to show – as broad and well-funded as the downtown push is, it still can snag on rules and details.
Kenney: 919-460-2608; Twitter: @KenneyOnCary