It would take two grown men spreading their arms out to reach around the trunk of an old live oak tree at 1104 Orange Avenue. Other live oak trees spread across the front and side yard. More across the street shade the roadway. A front porch and side porch are cool because of the shade and could be a perfect place for slowly swinging in a two-seater from a chain hanging down from the ceiling. Add a plate of tea cakes and glass of sweet tea with water condensing down the side of its icy side to give a perfect example of relaxed gentility. But some wood is rotted off the bottom of the bead-board sides. Weeds overgrow the yard. Scraps of blue plastic tarp hang down from the roof, remnants of a quick fix after a long-gone hurricane. A sheet of orange paper gives a warning from the City of Orange that the house is not fit for habitation because it does not meet codes. The house is not the only one in this condition. Several of them dot the area designated by the city as the Old Orange Historic District. Nearby, other old houses have been carefully, and expensively, restored. Dealing with the decaying houses puts the city in a Catch 22.

Almost all the dilapidated houses in The District have been abandoned by owners. Sometimes an owner has died and heirs either argue about the disposition or ignore the property. Or perhaps a hurricane damaged a house and the owner moved out of town, leaving the house vacant. Last week during a meeting of the city's Historical Preservation Commission, Councilwoman Essie Bellfield suggested that the city could auction off the abandoned houses to someone who would fix them up. City Planning Director Jimmie Lewis said the city doesn't own the properties and can't do that.

That's where the Catch 22 comes into play. Lewis said that the city sends out notices to property owners and follows legal procedures. Sometimes the city pays to have the yard mowed to keep down vermin from other neighbors. If so, the cost of the money is filed as a legal lien against the property, meaning that if the land is ever sold, the city will get its costs back. Eventually, after a hearing the city judge can designate a house for demolition. Then the city pays someone to demolish the house. Again, a lien is placed on the property and the city pays to mow the plot. Usually in these cases, the owners are not paying property taxes. After a certain period of time, Orange County will foreclose on the vacant land in a tax foreclosure. Foreclosures are usually auctioned and the purchase price is low. Lewis said the city doesn’t recover the money spent on demolition and upkeep. A lover of old houses never gets a chance to save a restore one of these houses and the city loses money.

Many of the old houses have prime long-leaf pine or even cypress boards. Some have oak floors and fireplaces with tile designs. Others may have unique wood interior carvings, etched glass door windows or glass door knobs. Lewis said the city pays to demolish a house, not salvage it. Salvaging is much more expensive.

The Orange City Council appoints citizens to the Historical Preservation Commission. The commission is set up under the regulations of the Old Orange Historic District. The commission is supposed to approve all demolitions, along with all exterior changes to buildings in The District. A couple of years ago, the commission asked the city to hold back tearing down a house. Someone bought the house and began repairs. That is a rarity. The commission last week approved demolitions. One is for an old two-story garage. The owner of the property is restoring the house will pay to have the garage torn down. She plans to salvage the old wood to build a one-story garage. The others, including the house on Orange Avenue, have now passed one step that could lead to demolition.

-Margaret Toal, KOGT-