OPELIKA — The fate of the historic home, commonly known as The Renfro or the Renfro-Andrus House, found in the Northside Historic District at 414 N. 10th Street in Opelika, is still up in the air.
The house and land (1.24 acres) were bought by the Archdiocese of Mobile in November 2018 and prompted concerns about religious organizations being exempt from Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) rules and regulations. Concerned citizens called for changes to the city of Opelika’s ordinance governing the matter in an effort to prevent historic homes from being bought and demolished by church organizations.
A new ordinance was approved by the city council in 2019, ending the exemptions for churches but allowing properties already owned by churches to be grandfathered in. The Renfro house is one of those that is still exempt from the HPC rules. This means that the owners, the Archdiocese of Mobile, can demolish the house at will should it so choose to do so.
Although the property has been listed for sale at various times since 2019, it was listed most recently in mid-October 2023, and now has interested buyers, Aaron and Allison Kovak along with Allison’s brother, Jonathan Wilmarth.
During the city of Opelika’s January Planning Commission Meeting, held Tuesday, Jan. 23, the commission heard a request for rezoning from medium density residential to institutional.
According to the application, the rezoning request was made in order for the proposed buyers to establish a boutique hotel or bed and breakfast and a community event center after renovating the existing structure. The change of ownership from a religious organization would put this property back under the regulations of the Northside Historic design guidelines and review by the HPC.
The Planning Commission consists of Lucinda Cannon, Jay Walters, Leigh Whatley, Sheldon Whittelsey, Mike Hilyer, Arturo Menefee, Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller, George (Willie) Allen and John Sweatman.
The Opelika Planning Department, headed by Director Matt Mosley, made a positive recommendation to the commission to send this request for rezoning to the Opelika City Council.
“In looking at this we reviewed the zoning as it fell within the district as it related to current use and the adjacent properties uses … with both churches [St. Mary’s Catholic Church and 10th Street church of Christ] being institutional uses and we are recommending that the future land use be modified from medium density residential to institutional,” Mosley said.
He also said the planning department was recommending the commission make a positive recommendation to the city council for rezoning to an institutional zone.
Mosley discussed concerns about the property’s future, including both the potential of it being demolished and potential adaptive uses such as the proposed use as a boutique hotel or bed and breakfast facility.
“It is an extremely large, single-family home and these homes are often very difficult to figure out how to repurpose,” he said. “… In historic preservation we have what is called adaptive reuse, where we look at the original purpose and function of the home versus what it can become to make it still a viable use, and the size of this home, the location and its layout, all make it very large for someone to occupy and use as a single-family home.
“One of the most common uses we see with this is something like a bed and breakfast, where they are used for commercial use, but it is not a use that would be out of character for the area or disruptive. Our biggest concern is that at some point a use isn’t available to be determined for the house and to sell the property the Catholic church decides to go ahead and demolish the home, which they have the ability to do as the current owners.”
Mosley also said he had been in contact with the Catholic Church.
“The Catholic Church, Father Gil, and the congregation have been fantastic to work with since we expressed our concerns,” Mosley said. “They listened as we expressed our concern about the upkeep and the future of the building. As they prepare to move to a different location, we appreciate their willingness to try to help find a buyer to maintain this beautiful home. I believe using this property for a bed and breakfast is the most realistic plan that also protects this building and the character of the Northside Historic District. However, this is why we go through a public process to ensure that everyone has a chance to give their thoughts and perspective.”
The engineering department had no comments or concerns for the proposed rezoning and the Opelika Utilities Board offered no objections.
Several members of the community spoke both for and against the rezoning of the property during the public hearing.
Opelika resident Barry Whatley spoke against it, citing other uses that are allowed under an institutional zoning as being his primary concern. According to the city ordinance “Section 7.3 Specific District Regulations: Uses,” those other uses include offices, clinical, research and services not primarily related to goods or merchandise operation designed to attract and serve customers or clients on premises such as office of attorney, physicians, other professions, insurance, stock broker, government building, etc., offices of physicians or dentists, banks, and banks with drive-in windows, daycare centers, funeral homes, pharmacies and other miscellaneous uses are also listed in the ordinance. Whatley read most of the list during his time speaking.
“I don’t think you will find a single solitary person in the neighborhood that wouldn’t have a fit over those that I just mentioned,” he said. “They don’t belong in our neighborhood. We’ve got a wonderful, historic neighborhood that people love. It’s a single-family dwelling, it’s a precious commodity of the city, and if you change it to this, you open up the door to two things.”
He also spoke about the potential use years down the road should the rezoning occur as being one of those two things.
“… If the proposed buyers do this, and it doesn’t work, then in five years, 10 years, 15 years, they can sell it to someone else and they have the right to put a daycare center in; it’s been approved already,” Whatley said. “They could put a bank in, they can put a dentist office in, right in the middle of the historic district and the neighborhood.”
He addressed the potential for other owners nearby deciding to also seek rezoning as the second concern, eventually creating a “domino effect” that changes the entire neighborhood.
“By rezoning it, we are opening this up to a can of worms that we don’t want in the historic district.”
Whatley spoke out against the idea of a bed and breakfast and or an event center operating in the neighborhood.
“I don’t think this is appropriate in a neighborhood,” he said. “It doesn’t fit. Parties at night, wedding parties, it’s not what our neighborhood is. The historic district is a gem, a jewel, a diamond to the city of Opelika that other cities look at and drive hours to visit each year, and we’re sitting here talking about putting commercial-industrial in our neighborhood. I don’t understand that.”
Whatley offered some suggestions pertaining to the property.
“So let them put it back on the market and let them market it at a reasonable price. You can’t go ask for a half-million dollars for a house that doesn’t have a kitchen. … Let the church lower the price and sell it; and the market will take care of itself. If they lower it to a price to where someone in the market will buy it, then they’ll buy it and fix it up and we can restore all these homes back to what they should have been which is single-family dwellings.”
He also said he would rather it be torn down than it become a daycare center or some of the other potential uses allowed under the proposed rezoning.
“And if they tear it down, I would rather the house be torn down and be a green lot than I would a daycare center, or a dentist office or an accounting firm, a brokerage firm or a government office,” Whatley said.
Stephen Lock who lives near the church objected to the rezoning.
“When the Catholic Church has an event outside on Sunday afternoons, we’re a part of it; the noise, the traffic, everything that goes on, …it’s just so loud, so noisy,” Lock said. “It is not what we want … to spend the rest of our lives [having] to deal with. Nobody wants to see the house torn down, nobody wants to see Opelika become the loveliest parking deck in Auburn, but at the same time we just want to preserve the way we are right now and what we’ve invested. Like Barry said, we’ve invested a ton of capital in our homes and it’s just not what we want.”
Julie Lock addressed the commission on behalf of her neighbors, Tony and Phyllis McCarty
“We discussed in length how we came to all the meetings to end the availability of churches to buy historical homes and so when we got this letter in regards to the rezoning, that really just disappointed us because we thought that was the end of it, that the historical homes were going to be preserved,” she said. “If these people buy this and make it an event center or a boutique and a bed and breakfast, that defeats everything we have done to accomplish, hopefully preserving the historic district. Once the Catholic Church moves all those homes are going to be for sale. I mean, every single one of them because they’re not going to want to keep them.”
She then read a letter from the McCartys. Here are excerpts from that letter:
“We do not want the zoning to be changed … we are concerned that our property values will decrease with the change. We are also concerned about the noise and the traffic the change will bring to the neighborhood.”
Residents Charlie Brewer and Catherine Stanton also spoke against it.
“The biggest concern that I have is the rezoning,” Brewer said.
Stanton said she really hopes that it doesn’t degrade the neighborhood and start of chain reaction of ruining the beautiful space that’s here in Opelika.
Others also spoke against it often citing the same reasons as already mentioned.
But not everyone in attendance was against the proposed changes. Local business owner, Angela George, also took the opportunity to address the commission.
“I am a little bit confused by the conversations on different sides of things of people wanting to preserve homes and do everything they can to keep them but then not wanting to possibly use them for other uses,” she said. “If anyone is familiar with the work that they [the potential buyers] have done at Zazus, The Well, or at The Loft [Condos], it’s exquisite. They are the best stewards of the property that they own. They are very involved; they live here and are very invested in the community.”
George said she hopes to see the house preserved.
“I really hope that the Renfro House can continue to stand,” she said. “I feel like this is the best outcome actually for that house for right now. If we want to preserve these homes, I would think that the person that is willing and knows how to do the work and that can bring it back to its original glory should have the opportunity to be able to do that,” George said. “I do understand what other people’s concerns are about the noise … but right now it [the property] is being used. It is not commercial, but it is religious; there is parking, there are people, there is traffic.
“If these people are willing to do this and restore that place and make it something beautiful, then I would hope that you would consider giving them that chance,” George concluded.
One of the potential buyers and contractors for the renovation addressed the commission and said he believes they are just trying to preserve the house and not upset the neighborhood.
“We are all trying to do the same thing here; we’re trying to preserve that house,” he said. “I worked my butt off on that house when I was about 18 years old. I had to hand make every piece of that siding that went on that garage.
“Regardless of what you know about fixing up stuff, that house needs a lot of repairs, and you can go about it cheap, throw a metal roof on it and move on, or you can keep it the way it is meant to be. That’s what we’re trying to do. We are not trying to turn it into an event space; we’re trying to turn it into something that is a home that people can come to and enjoy in the way it was meant to be enjoyed, not just something that turns into a parking lot. It is to preserve what is there. … We’re not trying to flip it or turn it into something that is going to upset the neighborhood. It is actually to make things more enjoyable.”
He spoke of the potential for creating a space for the community to enjoy, especially during the Christmas holidays.
“You are more than welcome to come visit,” he said. “During Christmas time we are going to make that place beautiful. We are going to open it up to the community to come in and see what we have done but we have to have the opportunity to do it.”
Rush Denson, a local realtor, spoke for the project.
“As chairman of the Historic Preservation Commission, realtor and neighbor, I handpicked Allison and Aaron to hopefully be the ones to restore this home,” Denson said. “I showed it to a handful of others that were scared or turned off immediately even though they are all interested in living in the historic district.”
He also spoke of Aaron’s qualifications as a historic property contractor that has renovated other properties in Opelika as well as Wilmarth’s history with the property. He said they, [Aaron and Allison], desire to be good neighbors to the area and to restore the property to its original grandeur.
“The community was once in an uproar that this home could be torn down,” Denson said. “Now we have the opportunity to not only save it but to bring it back to its former glory. We must remember, there is nothing stopping the current owners from demolishing this property or the entire block, minus one structure. Should an investor want a clean slate in order to redevelop the property, it would most likely become a higher-density development. There are similar homes in the historic district that operate under the rules of which Allison, Aaron and Jonathan intend to abide. Their earnest desire is to address any concerns in order to be good neighbors.”
He also spoke about the Kovak’s plans for the property.
“Their hope is to make it a home that the community will be able to visit by offering it as a space for smaller events or controlled/managed overnight guests with guarded requirements and not offered as an Airbnb. Their personal investments will be substantial; therefore, they will naturally be very cautious with how this property will be used. They would naturally be very careful to protect their investment while remaining cognizant of the neighbors and the community.”
Denson also addressed concerns about a conflict of interest.
“While some may say I have a conflict of interest as the realtor, I am also an invested neighbor and chairman of the Historic Preservation Committee,” Denson said. “As a realtor my goal is to improve property values. As a neighbor and chairman of the HPC my main objective is to see historical properties preserved and maintained.”
As said above, the house is currently in a state of disrepair and without a buyer, that is unlikely to change anytime soon. Because it is exempt from the HPC rules, the owners could decide to demolish the property to make the land more attractive to other buyers, or as a religious organization, it could decide to renovate the building and use it for other purposes. According to Mosley, if the building were demolished under the current R2 zone it could be sold and used by a different church and still not come under the current historic guidelines. If it were sold for development, it could be used for single family residential by right. It could also be conditionally used for utilities, a hospital, nursing home, private school, cell tower, group home or day care home.
Once the public hearing was closed, a motion for a negative recommendation was made, and a second motion was given.
With the exception of one absent member, the planning commission voted unanimously to send a negative recommendation to the city council.
Following the meeting, Allison shared some of her ideas and goals for the property as well as saying she understands some of the concerns people have expressed.
“I understand the main concerns that people have,” she said. “From what I understand, the main two concerns are: one, ‘What happens if we get hit by a bus?’ Our response to that is that our banker is looking at finding a way to do a conditional deed that could limit what can and can’t be done with the property should we get ‘hit by a bus.’
“The other thing I have heard is the term ‘commercial creep,’” Allison said. “People are scared that if this is allowed for us that it could start creeping into the historic district as a whole. According to Matt, the only reason we are even allowed to request institutional zoning right now is because we are sitting between two institutions: the Catholic Church and 10th Street church of Christ. You can’t jump across the street — that is called spot zoning which is illegal. So, this idea that we’re going to be like cancer and creep into the historic district is literally not allowable within the current laws’ zoning.”
She said she believes there is some misunderstanding of what they want to accomplish with the Renfro house.
“Unfortunately, I think I unintentionally started a runaway train of misinformation when I used the words community event center on the application,” she explained. “The key word in the phrase for me was community, but I misused the word event because people immediately made a connection point to The Bottling Plant Event Center and the Southerly Warehouse and that was never my intention. The rooms inside the house are not [large], there is no grand ballroom. The largest room in the house is the foyer so it is not a house that is conducive to hosting large gatherings.”
She also spoke about the historic preservation of the building.
“The big picture is, if they [the Catholic Church] sell it [the house] it has to be historically protected,” she said. “The outside still has to be under historic guidelines. It is still going to look like a historic house. I think people may not understand that. It still has to look like the neighborhood around it, it still has to have the historic features that is has now, regardless of what is going on inside.”
When asked to explain what she meant by event space, Allison said she was thinking about small groups that could come and use the space for small gatherings.
“Small groups that are looking for a place to meet on Wednesday night, a group from the Rotary Club where they could meet to discuss community events or a mother looking for an elegant space to host a bridal tea the day before her daughter’s wedding — those types of events — but very intimate,” she said. “Everybody looks at that front lawn, and even the Renfros did circuses on it, and I know everyone thinks we are going to pitch big, white tents that house 300 people, but that is not the intent for the property,” Allison added. “We don’t want 100 girls in high heels running on the antique wood floors. We won’t have the bathrooms to support that kind of event space. My biggest regret is that I wrote the word event; that was not the intent of my heart, I just did not know how to describe what we’re trying to do which is to create a community asset.”
Allison said they want to create a luxury bed and breakfast that offers elevated hospitality.
“With the current zoning it could be an Airbnb; we own Airbnbs now and they have their place but we believe an Airbnb is not the best use of the home,” she said. “Airbnb’s have transient guests that are unsupervised. We want to create a destination home, inviting people to explore and experience Opelika and it’s history. We are going to do this with the expectation that we will not be fully occupied all the time. I have done enough research to know that we can maintain the house with much lower occupancy if we do that. Lower occupancy allows each for experience to be hands on and more intentional. Airbnb is about turnover, quantity not quality. We believe rezoning allows for a better experience for the guests and the neighborhood.”
Allison said her passion, her heart for this house is for it to be able to be used and enjoyed by the community.
“Our heart for it is that we want it to become a community asset,” she said.
As of now, a public hearing on the matter is scheduled for the Feb. 20 Opelika City Council meeting. It is unknown whether that public hearing will be held in light of the negative recommendation, however, the council does have the authority to hold the public hearing and hold a vote on the matter. `
Should the council either decide to remove the item from the agenda completely, or should it vote to deny the proposed zoning, it is unknown what the future of the Renfro house will be.
Allison did say they plan to host a town hall meeting before the city council’s public hearing to share their vision for the property and to give people in the community an opportunity to share their concerns. More information on that will be forthcoming.