Laurel Street debris

This pile of debris is all that's left of Conway City Councilman Tom Anderson's building at 209 Laurel St.

State health officials did not find any asbestos in the rubble of a Conway building that collapsed last week, but they did instruct the building’s owner to obtain a state license before hauling off the remainder of the debris.

The crumbled brick building at 209 Laurel St. belongs to Conway City Councilman Tom Anderson. It suddenly collapsed a week ago after engineers say some trusses failed.

Anderson obtained a demolition permit from the city last week, but he said he didn’t know he needed a permit from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) to remove the crumbled mess. He said city officials asked him to clear the area quickly. 

“This wasn’t something that was planned for,” Anderson said. “Nobody is trying to hide anything.”

Anderson said DHEC officials told him they had received an anonymous complaint about his fallen building and were required to investigate whether the structure, which was built in the early 20thcentury, contained asbestos. A DHEC inspector went to his property and collected samples. Anderson said DHEC told him the site was cleared Tuesday afternoon.

DHEC spokeswoman Laura Renwick confirmed that state tests did not reveal asbestos, but she said Anderson would still need to obtain state permission to clear the rest of the site. 

“With the building collapsed, a demolition license from DHEC is required for plans to dispose of the building debris,” she said via email.

Facing criticism

No one was inside the structure when it suddenly collapsed around 2:45 p.m. on July 23 and no injuries were reported. An engineer hired by the city blamed the crash on faulty trusses.  

Since his building fell, Anderson has faced sharp criticism from Barbara Streeter, a former tenant whose business, Conway Glass, spent years in the old building.

Streeter, who moved her company to 12th Avenue in 2016, posted photos of Anderson's building on her Facebook page. She maintains the images show that there had been vertical support columns inside the building when she was there. She questioned whether Anderson removed those columns without the proper permits.  

“We would never have let him take the supports out,” she said. “We worked around them. We knew what they were there for."

Anderson received tax incentives to rehab the property, but city and Horry County officials said he did not complete the project he proposed.

Anderson maintains he did minimal work to the building after purchasing it in 2016 and had struggled to lease the site, though he had shown it to a prospective tenant in recent weeks.

“I felt comfortable with the building as it was,” he said. “If I would have not, I would have done something.”

Anderson declined to respond to Streeter’s comments other than to say he would not do any work without a permit if a project required one. He said he did add some lumber to the trusses to stabilize them, but he contends he did not remove any critical supports. He also said he cleaned the building.

Robert Cooper, the city’s building official, said Anderson has maintained consistent contact with the building department for months about the property and did obtain a permit when it was required. For example, Cooper said several months ago the city installed a new sewer tap at the building. Anderson had planned to install bathrooms and had removed the flooring to update the building’s plumbing.

“We’ve had no complaints on that building,” Cooper said. “He stripped it out, but he had the right to … so he could figure out what was wrong and what needed a permit.” 

Myhorrynews.com has filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for permit records for the building from the last five years. A city spokeswoman said the request is being processed.

After the collapse, two engineers looked at the remnants of the crumbled building. Steve Powell of Venture Engineering was hired by the city, and a forensic engineer was brought in by the owner of the adjacent building (211 Laurel St.).

Cooper said both engineers reached the same conclusion about the trusses.

The forensic engineer suggested the collapse could have stemmed from a roof leak between the buildings that caused the ends of the trusses to rot.

“Either way, the truss fell,” Cooper said. 

He noted that 211 Laurel St. appears to be structurally sound, but he wants both engineers to inspect it again before it reopens. That building houses a law office.

When asked whether Anderson was doing additional structural work, Cooper said the city has no record of that.

“Not that I’m aware of,” he said. “I don’t know what [contractors] are doing 24-7, but not to our knowledge.” 

Plans don't materialize

Anderson had big plans for the building.

In 2017, he requested a special tax assessment from the county’s Board of Architectural Review, according to public records. This type of program encourages the restoration of historic properties by freezing tax assessments at the pre-rehabilitation levels for up to 15 years. This avoids penalizing a property owner for improving historic structures.

County spokeswoman Kelly Moore said the special assessment for the property was granted in 2017, which triggered a freeze for two years. Property owners can ask for an extension if they can prove they have made improvements to the property. Ultimately, the owner has five years to complete all the renovations specified in his or her application.

In Anderson’s case, he outlined nearly $180,000 worth of improvements that he planned to make, according to public records.

Although the county’s online property records list the structure as being built in 1938, Anderson told the county the building was constructed before 1920 and was once used as a horse and mule stable, according to public records. It also served as the offices for a tobacco farmer.

Anderson told the Board of Architectural Review that the building had no original interior walls. He planned to convert the place into a venue that would hold tables, chairs and booths, accommodating up to 120 people.

Anderson’s proposal included pressure washing and painting doors and windows and adding an exterior door. He also stated that he would be constructing interior walls and bringing the building's plumbing, electrical, and heating and cooling systems up to code.

New restrooms, a new kitchen and interior and exterior painting were included in the plans.

But the county has no record of Anderson’s work after the special assessment was approved, said Moore, the county spokeswoman.

City spokeswoman Taylor Newell also said the city provided a special tax assessment to Anderson, but completing the work is necessary to ensure the tax incentive continues.

Anderson said he didn't follow through with his original proposal.

“Just never got around to it,” he said.

After the building collapsed, Anderson said the city urged him to demolish it quickly.

“I tried to get as much out as I could,” he said. “I probably left $30,000 worth of stuff in there. The building inspector was there all day Saturday. And he said, ‘Tom, I’m not comfortable with this thing staying up. I want it to come down.’”

Anderson said perhaps other buildings in the city should be inspected to avoid a similar situation.

“Maybe we need to do a comprehensive evaluation of all our structures and make sure,” he said. “You can look at stuff, but you can never be 100 percent sure.”

At one time, Anderson said he thought his building would house a pizzeria. Other ideas were pitched after Conway Glass left, but nothing ever took hold. As crews hauled off the debris earlier this week, Anderson said he’s unsure what he’ll do with the property.

“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s not free and clear. I’ve got a nice little mortgage on it. I was way underinsured. … I’ve got to figure out something to do with it. This time last week, I had a skeleton that I could fluff up a little bit and go with. Now I’ve got a vacant lot.”

Contact Charles D. Perry at 843-488-7236

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I'm the editor of myhorrynews.com and the Carolina Forest Chronicle, a weekly newspaper in Horry County, South Carolina. I cover county government, the justice system and agriculture. Know of a story that needs to be covered? Call me at 843-488-7236.

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