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Forsyth commissioners air options to save Barker House in part, whole

 
POSTED: September 4, 2016 1:00 a.m.
Kelly Whitmire/

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NORTH FORSYTH -- A week after voting to tear down the iconic “spaceship” Barker House atop Sawnee Mountain, Forsyth County commissioners decided to postpone action on its demolition, though its chances of having a viable use in its present form remain stark.

The unanimous vote Thursday was to remove the Barker House decision from the consent agenda and, following a discussion, to place it on the agenda for Tuesday’s work session.

The Barker House is a unique structure that bears a round, UFO-style design at the top of the house with an underground area and a “stem” housing an elevator and stairs to connect the portions. The county purchased the house and surrounding property in 2003 for about $1.8 million.

Items approved unanimously at work sessions are not binding until passed as part of a regular meeting’s consent agenda.

“The deck is sort of bare, if you will, as to what are going to do with the Barker house, because there has been no final action,” said County Attorney Ken Jarrard early in Thursday’s discussion.

Jarrard led a presentation on issues facing the house and previous studies, which indicated that any use, especially for the top of the house, would be an expensive process.

The house has fallen into disrepair and been plagued with vandalism and trespassers in recent years.

“I went up there last week; I don’t think there’s a window in the facility that is not broken and/or secured by plywood,” County Manager Doug Derrer said. “There is extensive damage to the exterior … the fence was cut and/or damaged to gain entry numerous times.”

From the beginning of 2015 to Aug. 26, local emergency personnel responded to 83 emergency and non-emergency calls at the property.

Only four of those were for criminal trespass, though Derrer said he felt the real number was much higher.

“That’s a low number; that’s the number of times that … it was called to the 911 center,” he said. “The chances are pretty good that there was a lot more criminal trespass activity up there … in fact, when our public facilities director went up there last week, I believe he encountered at least two individuals in the area or around the area or inside the fence.”

Derrer said there was evidence that trespassers had rappelled through the house’s skylights and that needles and other drug paraphernalia were found at the house and any future use would require constant monitoring.

“If we were to maintain this facility properly and keep it safe, it would require a fortress, if you will around it, or 24/7/365 staff,” he said.

Per the presentation, between 2003 and 2010 five studies were done to find uses for the house, all of which found extreme damage.

The first of those studies, done by Peter H. Hand and Associates, found the house would require construction of an exterior staircase and elevator, replacement of the house’s roof and HVAC, plumbing and electrical system overhaul.

A study done by Georgia Tech in 2004 stated that the property would need an additional lobby and tower for an elevator meeting American Disability Act standards, “substantial” excavation for a parking and bus turn around area and that the “roof and floor systems would fail under proposed load, [and] requires substantial redesign.”

In 2010, a use and feasibility study by the county’s Parks and recreation department looked at the property for visitations, programs and rental for classes, small events and weddings.

The study found the revenue would not approach costs. It was estimated the annual revenue would be $40,000-$80,000, but it would cost $80,000 in annual operating expenses and around $1.8 million for renovations.

No fire hydrant and the house being “generally not up to code with visible water damage and exposed electrical connections” were also concerns.

Ccommissioners discussed some options for the house, though no action was taken.

District 4 Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills was in favor of the county hiring an engineer to see if any of the house, particularly the bottom portion, was salvageable.

Mills also said she had communicated with the Forsyth County Historical Society, which decided not to get involved with the house as “it did not have a significant age factor.”

Another plan that had previously been discussed and was brought up in the meeting by Chairman Pete Amos, whose District 1 the house sit in, was adding a pavilion for hikers that resembled and had information on the house.

The parks department forming a committee to look at the possibilities for the house and area was also discussed.

Those options will likely be discussed at the work session.

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