Church can demolish houses it owns

Council rejects historic research bid on structures; both can come down in spring

Gazette photo by Avery Cropp The property at 604 Fourth St. South is located across the street from the Washington County Historic Courthouse.
Gazette photo by Avery Cropp
The denial of a research bid by the Stillwater City Council allows St. Paul’s Lutheran Church to demolish the two properties it owns.

After two months of consistent Stillwater City Council votes denying Saint Paul’s Lutheran Church demolition permits for two vacant homes on church property, a motion to proceed researching the historical value of the properties failed.

Community Development Director Bill Turnblad said his department solicited bids from four groups that perform historic preservation research. The four were determined to have the ability to provide the information in the short time allotted for the process.

The city received one bid of $16,580 for the research work, and Turnblad added that city officials thought the bid was high.

The time frame Turnblad referred to was the first 30-day notices required as a part of the city’s new, untested historic preservation ordinance. The group would essentially have five weeks of time to complete the initial report.

Due to the ordinance timeline, Turnblad said the council had two alternatives to select at Tuesday night’s meeting: accept the one bid received, have the group do the work and report their findings in May; or take no action and after the six-month review period, allow demolition of the homes.

The ordinance is split into stage one and stage two portions, according to Turnblad. Stage one determines if there is a greater than 50 percent chance the property is worth saving and if the consultant would move forward. The second stage involves declaring the properties historically important. Stage one would have cost about $3,252.

“Why not proceed with stage one? If it ends up being something, we can proceed with stage two,” said Mayor Ken Harycki. “If the properties aren’t good candidates, it will cost us $3,000 and we’re done.”

Harycki added that he believes if the council moves forward with the first stage, it would help flesh out the ordinance and identify other problems that might occur throughout the process.

Ward 3 Councilman Jim Roush said although that might be true, the city’s expense must be considered.

“If the consultants have to make a recommendation and say that they see there’s potential for further research, I bet you 100 dollars that they’ll go and say that we should proceed with phase two.” Roush said.

“That’s not necessarily true,” Harycki said. “I’ve had consultants call off things after one day.”

Councilwoman Micky Cook agreed with Harycki about moving forward with the first stage of the process, saying she wanted to know more facts to ensure that they weren’t tearing down something with historic significance.

Councilman Doug Menikheim expressed concerns that the St. Paul’s Lutheran permit requests would be the wrong test case for the ordinance and wondered if the process was worth the cost.

“Is it fair to the church to use it as a guinea pig to test a new ordinance,” he asked.

“It’s not about whether it’s a church or not,” Cook said. “We have to apply the same standard to everyone.”

Menikheim later added: “I can’t support it because they’re in Ward 1. I’ve spent time with them and I feel as though we’re pushing property owners rights to test an ordinance.”

Although Ward 4 Councilman Mike Polehna repeated his stance that the issue infringes on property owner rights, he added that the bid cost was pushing the envelope.

“I can’t support it either because if it comes down to $16,000 to save a house, it’s unfair to the taxpayer,” he said. “If in the future we have to pay that amount we need to justify it and I think that $16,000 is pushing the envelope.”

“I don’t like the overall cost either but I can swallow the cost of the first part,” Cook said.

“I’m not nuts about proceeding to the second stage either but I feel like the first part can be more workable for us,” Harycki added.

Cook moved to approve paying $3,252 so the first stage of the ordinance could go into effect. The motion failed with Roush, Menikheim and Polehna dissenting.

Turnblad said the vote allows the church to demolish the properties at the end of April or in early May because no report will be done. The church plans to turn the areas where the homes currently stand into green space.