Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens and other town leaders say the best hope for saving the beleaguered Colonial Inn is to take the property away from its current owner, Francis Henry.

“We’ve had issues with this building and the property for over 13 years now,” says Stevens. “What’s triggering the urgent action is concern for public safety.”

The building at 153 West King Street dates back to 1838. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is one of the town’s most well-known local landmarks. But since buying it at auction 13 years ago, Henry has let the Inn fall into disrepair. Stevens says it’s in such bad shape the Fire Marshal has declared it a hazard.

“We’ve gone from trying to prevent demolition by neglect, to a minimum housing violation where the owners just plain could not live there because it was not safe for human habitation, until finally the Fire Marshal had to step in to say, ‘Look, this has deteriorated to the point where we can’t even have people in there unless they’re contractors actually working on the building,’” says Stevens

Henry twice asked for permission to demolish the former Inn. Hillsborough’s Historic District Commission denied both requests. Stevens says the most recent request opened the way for the town to take action.

“The town gained some statutory authority to proceed with eminent domain over a year ago when the owner applied to demolish the building,” Stevens explains. “There is legislation that allows local government to proceed with eminent domain on properties that are historically significant, and where an application is made to demolish the significant structure.”

After years of debate, the town board voted unanimously on Monday to begin eminent domain proceedings to take control of the property. The first step is for an independent auditor to determine what constitutes just compensation for the property.

Henry paid $410,000 for it at auction in 2002. In 2008, the tax value was estimated at $600,000. But now, due to extreme neglect, officials say it may only be worth the value of the land, about $143,000.

The actual renovations to restore the building could be as much as $3 million, but Stevens says the board is not planning to invest that much town money in the project.

Ultimately, he says the town’s goal is not to own the landmark, but to turn it over to a public-private partnership to restore and run.

“We’re interested in getting it into the hands of a group that would involve organizations like Preservation North Carolina, local folks who are very interested in saving the Colonial Inn, restoration experts, and business folks. We see an inclusive process that would have a very good chance at moving forward.”

Depending on how the court proceedings go, it could be as long as a year before the town takes control of the former Colonial Inn, but Preservation North Carolina is already working to establish a fund to collect donations to support the restoration.

You can find a full timeline of the town’s actions regarding the former Colonial Inn here.