Council denies demo permits

Gazette photo by Avery Cropp
The property at 604 Fourth St. South is located across the street from the Washington County Historic Courthouse.

Heritage committee to begin historic resource assessment of structures

In a 3-to-2 vote, the Stillwater City Council Tuesday denied demolition permits to St. Paul Lutheran Church for two properties the church owns, upholding the Heritage Preservation Commission’s objection based on possible historic value.

Mayor Ken Harycki, Ward 1 Councilman Doug Menikheim and Ward 2 Councilwoman Micky Cook voted to deny the demolition permits. Ward 3 Councilman Jim Roush and Ward 4 Councilman Mike Polehna dissented.

The vote allows City Planner Mike Pogge to bring in a consultant, gather their formal findings and bring back a denial in writing to the council.

The properties in question are 604 Fourth St. South, and 216 Willard St. The issue came before the council after the Heritage Preservation panel denied the church’s demolition permit request Sept. 6.

The HPC has 180 days to designate the property a historic resource, which involves analysis by a historian, a report, another public hearing and another commission recommendation to the council. Decisions will be made in February or March.

The church can take the council decision to district court if they feel it violated the state historic preservation act.

The church’s attorney, Kevin Shuberg, explained the demolition request to council. He said a church task force discussed how the church would use the two properties. After both structures were inspected, Shuberg received a renovation estimates from George Seiford Construction of $175,000 to renovate the Fourth Street property which has an estimated value of $147,000. The Willard Street house renovation cost was estimated at $180,000 on a property with a value of $138,400.

The church plans call for converting the empty lots to green space for community events and public use. Shuberg said research by the church determined that neither property meets the ordinance requirements.

Feedback from the public hearing portion of the discussion was mixed with people supporting and opposing the demolition.

“Myself and my partner have no objection to demolishing the property,” said Ed Simonet, who’s business is near the Fourth Street site. “I see no benefit to letting this property deteriorate further and the fact that the church is going to put in green space will be helpful to our property value. The church is a good neighbor but the property has lived past its time, we want to be noted in favor of the demolition of 604 S. 4th Street.”

Joan Ockwig of North St. Paul was one of the last people to live at Fourth Street residence before it was sold to the church and addressed many of the main concerns brought up by other residents.

“The condition of the house is now in shambles. It’s a shame and it’s an eyesore,” she said. “When the church bought the house I remember them saying it was in the best condition and they’d use it for offices or Sunday school classes but I’ve since become disillusioned. After driving by I don’t believe the church did anything to keep it up. It’s a shame, why couldn’t it be used for something else?”

She added, “In this age of reuse and recycle that building is looking like hell now. Why is it allowed to go to hell in a handbasket and now it’s on the butcher block? It’s demolition by neglect and it took only 16 years for the house to look like this. Shame on the Lutheran Church.”

Cook agreed with Ockwig about demolition by neglect and said that the renovation estimate received by the church seemed outrageous to her.

Shuberg said that the church has put money into the properties to maintain them, and the properties have been used for low-income rental in the past but no longer fit the vision for the church. Shuberg did say that if anyone would like to purchase the properties and move them elsewhere the church would be open to that.

Polehna said he was concerned that the city was infringing on the church’s rights as property owners.

“Demolition by neglect or no, this isn’t a hole in the roof, it’s a $176,000 cost,” he said. “Forcing someone to pay for that, I’m having a hard time with that. It is their property and I think they should do what they like with their own property, especially if there’s no historic significance to that home.”

“I know that the church has the right to use it’s property as it sees fit,” Menikheim added, “but I would like to deny the permit without prejudice and get everyone together to start the process all over again so we can solve this in a more congenial and community-type way.”

“We followed your process, we’ve done all your processes,” Shuberg said. “And you’ll deny our assessment that we determined that neither one was a historic place. We are a church. Do you think when we brought the HPC in our processes weren’t in place? You appear to be singling us out, other churches did not have this problem in the past.”

“We need to protect our city from deteriorating properties.” Menikheim said.

“Then you should consult with Mr. Magnuson because he knows where this is going.” Shuberg replied.