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Decision deferred on future of Archie Smith Fish House site

STORY BY RAY McNULTY (Week of April 28, 2022)

More than two decades have passed since the 90-year-old Archie Smith Fish House property, located on east side of Indian River Drive at the north end of Sebastian, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and nature has not been kind.

By this time next year, the county-owned 1.15-acre site’s last remaining building – the so-called “residence” on the Indian River Lagoon’s shoreline – could be history.

County commissioners last week postponed a decision on the fate of the long-shuttered building, but they voted unanimously to seek bids and design proposals from contractors to expand the already-reconstructed boardwalk/dock area and install additional handrails.

The expansion, which could include a covered pavilion to be used as an over-the-water picnic area near the east end of the dock, would occupy the now-vacant site of the property’s recently demolished Ice House.

The Ice House, which was knocked down and removed in March, had deteriorated to the point where parts of the building were collapsing and debris was falling into the lagoon, posing safety hazards to the reconstructed dock, curious boaters and others who might try to access the dilapidated structure.

Not only did the building begin to lean toward the dock, but county staffers had been receiving complaints from customers of the Sebastian Saltwater Marina Restaurant (formerly Captain Butchers), which operates immediately south of the Fish House, about floating debris.

The Fish House residence, also known as the “main building,” likely will be the next to disappear.

Beth Powell, the county’s interim parks and recreation director, told the County Commission that she believes the building, which hasn’t served as a residence since the mid-1990s, is “past the point of rehabilitation.”

She described the residence’s condition as “not in great shape,” explaining that the floor is mostly missing and the building’s siding has begun to warp. She said there was already termite damage when the county purchased the property for $1.7 million in 2007 as part of its Environmental Lands Program.

“It’s not safe to go inside that building, so doing an assessment is very difficult,” Powell said. “The building hasn’t been safe for many years.”

When the county acquired the property in 2007, the staff developed conceptual plans to open the site to the public by rehabilitating the main house for use as a small museum and visitor center, repairing the dock, restoring the Ice House and providing boating access.

The dock was reconstructed in 2018-19 – using $206,000 in state grants and matching funds from the county – with new handrails, lighting and hydrants lining the boardwalk.

A black chain-link fence was installed along the northern edge of the property, and a small beach-like area behind the residence was cleaned up. Despite the county’s patchwork efforts to stabilize them, however, the buildings continued to deteriorate.

After the Ice House was demolished and county staffers consulted with County Historian Ruth Stanbridge, Powell presented to commissioners three options for the Fish House property:

• Redesign and reconstruct the Ice House, which would need to be built in accordance with current building codes.

• Install similar handrails along the section of the dock where the Ice House was located and post along the length of the boardwalk “commemorative educational signage” that tells the history of the property.

• Design and build a covered pavilion for public use on the site of the Ice House, and post the aforementioned educational signage.

The commissioners favored installing the additional handrails and expanding the dock to cover the former Ice House location, with the possibility of building a roofed, open-air pavilion for use as a picnic area.

A county staff report stated that funding for such a project would come from the $290,000-plus remaining in the county’s current fiscal-year capital improvement account.

Several commissioners last week expressed interest in creating a kayak launch on the “beachy area,” as Powell called it. All of them opposed rebuilding the Ice House, citing the lack of any meaningful public benefit.

“To try to recreate something where people walk out there and say, ‘OK, 50 years ago, we brought some crabs in here …?’” Commission Chairman Peter O’Bryan said. “To me, that just isn’t a real high tourist attraction.”

Or as Commissioner Joe Flescher put it: “We could bring them into a walk-in freezer in the back of a restaurant, and they’d have the same experience.”

Commissioner Joe Earman focused on the main building, asking whether “termites holding hands” were keeping the structure intact and later saying, “I’d almost take that down, too.”

Once the building was demolished, he said, the county could invest in “some really nice landscaping” and signage to remind visitors of the site’s historical significance.

“Just doing that would be a plus,” Earman said.

Commissioner Susan Adams asked Powell what was planned for the larger parcel of land across the street, on the west side of Indian River Drive.

Powell said customers of the neighboring restaurant use that property – without the county’s permission – for parking. Otherwise, it stands idle. She said there were “conceptual plans” to build a pavilion and small walking-trail area on the property, but they were never approved or implemented.

“There are some large oak trees there, and some areas that could be utilized as a passive park,” Powell said. “There’s not a lot of room for parking on the site. However, there’s a city of Sebastian parking lot just one lot to the south.”

The commissioners agreed to revisit the fate of the Fish House’s main building this summer – after taking a tour of the property – but there appeared to be no support for spending the money necessary to restore it.

Adams said she wished the county could preserve all the old, historic structures in the community, but agreed that it’s not practical. Instead, she preferred the commissioners adopt a plan to “pay homage to what was there and create a public amenity that will actually be used by the public.”

Commissioner Laura Moss, who endorsed O’Bryan’s suggestion that the county take a “minimalist approach” in addressing the Fish House property, said she agreed with shifting the “focal point” of the site from historic to public use.

“It’s a beautiful area,” Moss said. “I’m glad it’s ours.”