In the lightly traveled alley behind downtown Wilmington’s beloved second-hand bookseller Old Books on Front Street, a wall has caused trouble.
The slate-gray retaining wall, which is cracking and splattering with paint, is at the center of an ownership dispute between the city of Wilmington and the owner of Old Books on Front Street, Gwenyfar Rholer.
City officials told Rholer she needed to repair the wall because it compromises the foundation of her bookstore, which could make the building unsuitable for occupancy. But Rholer says the wall is outside her property line and therefore she shouldn’t have to pay the bill for its upkeep and upkeep.
The whole incident gave Rholer a bit of deja vu.
More than a decade ago, the building that housed the bookstore’s former location at 22 N. Front Street was condemned just six days after the start of the first phase of the Front Street landscape improvement project in the city. Although the city’s construction didn’t play a role in the sentencing, Rholer said she found the moment ironic. The city completed the second phase of its streetscape project in the block in front of its new store location at 249 N. Front Street just a few weeks ago.
This latest incident began in early 2022 when Rholer noticed the retaining wall behind his store and contacted the city of Wilmington to ask who it belonged to. He was told that the city would send a survey team to examine the wall. After that, she heard little about the city.
“We went from brush to absolute crickets,” she said. “No replies to emails, no replies to voicemails. Forget trying to get a real human on the phone.
Then, in late June, Rholer received a letter from city code enforcement. The letter, which Rholer provided to StarNews, cited five code violations. An inspection of the wall, for example, revealed that it was “unable to bear loads” and was “not structurally sound”.
“Inspection revealed a deteriorated, unsafe and unsanitary foundation wall at the rear of the property,” according to the text of a violation.
The letter asks Rholer to come up with a plan to bring the wall up to code. If no action is taken, the letter says, the matter will be brought forward for a hearing. The day after receiving the letter, Rholer contacted code enforcement. They were unaware that she had previously spoken to the city’s engineering department about the wall, but said that could count as her initial response to the complaint.
Soon after, Rholer decided she needed an independent survey of the property to determine how close the wall was to her property line. The results clearly showed that the wall was not on his land.
“We get the survey back and the wall is very clearly across the property line,” she said.
Rholer sent the results to the city’s engineering department, code enforcement, and the city manager’s office. Then last month, Rholer received a letter from David Cowell, director of engineering for the city of Wilmington, stating that the wall in question had been built privately and encroached on city property. He recommends filing a major encroachment petition with the Wilmington City Council.
The City of Wilmington declined to make officials from its engineering or code enforcement departments available to interview for this story, but media officer Jennifer Dandron provided a written statement.
In it, Dandron noted that “investigations do not determine who owns a property.” The city had inspected the property in 2014, reaching the same conclusions as the investigation commissioned by Rholer.
“The wall is in the right-of-way, but it is not city property,” the statement said.
Dandron said the wall “has no discernible public purpose” but its potential failure presents a public safety concern, making repairs necessary.
“The wall, however, serves a key purpose for private property, essentially if the wall were removed the owner would be significantly impacted. Given this information, the city considers that the property belongs to the private party; therefore, the private owner — not the city — would be required to cover the costs of repairs,” she wrote.
If Rholer owns the wall, that means she would be in charge of its maintenance and upkeep, which could cost her thousands of dollars, especially in its current state. “This wall has fond memories of being a wall,” she joked.
Rholer hired local attorney James Seay of the Seay Law Firm to represent her in the dispute over who owned the wall. Seay recently sent city leaders what Rholer called a “very clearly worded letter,” pleading their case.
“We don’t own this wall,” Rholer said. “We are not financially responsible for this wall, and we do not accept responsibility for this wall.”
Journalist Emma Dill can be reached at [email protected]