When controversy over the Blue Range cribs landed in the laps of commissioners last week, Historic Preservation Officer Mary McCormick staunchly defended a decision by the Historic Preservation Commission to delay demolition at least 90 days.
Commissioners and other county officials already had weighed, some supporting the stay, others opposing it, when McCormick had the floor in a long and contentious council meeting held virtually.
“I really respect the Historic Preservation Commission and the hard work they do,” she said. “They are a group of volunteers, they’re very good people, they take their job very seriously.
“And we do have an historic preservation ordinance that’s been in place for several years now and it’s just as important as any other ordinance that we have in Butte-Silver Bow,” she said.
McCormick was an architectural historian for years before then Chief Executive Matt Vincent appointed her as the county’s preservation officer in July 2015, and she served on the HPC from 2005 to 2011.
She and other passionate preservationists often point to Butte being part of the largest national historic landmark district in the U.S. as reason alone to save the buildings in it.
McCormick said the cribs are in the district and listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and as “one of the most significant buildings in the Uptown,” are worth saving.
But on the heels of the cribs controversy is a dispute that’s been brewing in an area on the Flat that’s not in an historic district. An HPC intervention there is raising red flags, too, and Gallagher, the county’s chief executive, is among those questioning it.
THE FLORAL PARK FLAP
The case involves an old house at 2505 State St. in the Floral Park Neighborhood, a residential area north of Interstate 15-90 near Father Sheehan Park.
Retirees Jennifer and William Mitchell live in a larger adjacent house that’s been in the family since 1937. They say the other house is an inexpensive, Craftsman “catalog kit” home that fell into disrepair the past 20 years before they bought it in September.
According to the Mitchells, the exterior has been modified extensively. The floor plan is unsuitable for today’s families. The structure needs re-roofing, foundation work, new wiring, plumbing and heating. There are holes in the floor and walls and it’s full of hazards.
It is also crammed so close to their house and the neighbor’s house, there is no privacy in either. The Mitchells want it gone so both properties have bigger yards and more privacy and their neighbors are all for it.
Jennifer Mitchell says she’s been in the design, engineering and restoration business for years and considered all kinds of alternatives and cost-comparisons for the house even before they bought it. One was relocation.
An established house-mover in Butte said it would cost $35,000 to relocate, she said, and that did not include a new lot, foundation, utilities and numerous other costs.
It would also cost tens of thousands of dollars to fix up, so she had a contractor request a demolition permit. The house is not in the national district, or any historic district, Mitchell said, so she didn’t anticipate big problems.
But McCormick, citing compliance with county preservation ordinances, brought the request to the HPC for demolition review.
Reviews are applicable to structures within Butte-Silver Bow County that are listed or eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places or have been listed in the county’s Local Register, McCormick explained in a letter to the Mitchells.
The house is not listed in either register, she acknowledged, but she determined that it had “sufficient integrity” to contribute to an historic district. Floral Park was not an historic district, but it has the potential to be one, she said.
She had determined that potential though a “reconnaissance inventory” of surrounding homes and research into the historic context of the neighborhood, she wrote. But she also said Butte-Silver Bow had no intention of nominating Floral Park for the national register, which would require consent of 80 percent of the neighborhood’s residents.
The HPC agreed that it could be a potential historic district, then voted to impose a 45-day stay of demolition so alternatives can be explored.
Mitzi Rossillon, a member of the HPC, wanted the Mitchells to meet other sections of the code that include advertising the house for sale or lease for alternative uses for 90 days, just as the HPC had done with the cribs. She was upset that nobody seconded her motion.
“This is an outrage that that building is not being considered for resale to another party who could fix it up, take care of it,” she said.
Rossillon said she knew of “parties right now” who would buy the house and “either rent it out or occupy it themselves or turn it over to another owner with restrictions on how it must be kept up.”
“For us to ignore the fact that this property can continue to survive at its current place and its current conditions is an outrage,” she said.
Jennifer Mitchell was outraged, too, saying it was her house and this arm of the county was trampling her property rights. She has no intention of selling the house or allowing anyone to live there because it intrudes on her family’s privacy and views.
“I really have made a good-faith effort to look at all the alternatives and price out all the alternatives and find all the options and lay them out, and we are not going to rent that building and we are not going to sell that building,” she told HPC members.
“It can sit there and rot if you people want to keep it as your own historic little clubhouse.”
Mitchell plans to appeal the 45-day demolition delay to the commissioners and she already has recent support from two council members.
Commissioner Michele Shea says she loves Butte’s history and respects the dedication and passion McCormick and the HPC put in protecting it, but in this case, they’re “changing horses in the middle of the race.”
“To deny the Mitchell’s request on the basis of creating an eventual historic district is not a good-1faith argument in the moment,” Shea said in a letter to the HPC. “To hold the Mitchells to a standard that does not yet exist is unfair and contradicts the property rights that they are entitled to under the law.”
Commissioner Jim Fisher agreed, saying the Mitchells have been through enough hoops and stress and Floral Park should remain a “family neighborhood” and not an “historical area” subject to more rules and regulations.
In a letter to the Standard, Jennifer Mitchell said investors, developers and businesses are finally taking an interest in Butte, but are being met with a “save it all crusade” instead of preservation efforts focused on the most significant structures.
“Outside the historic district, homeowners enjoy the freedom and rights to improve their properties as they wish,” the letter said. “Why this new crusade to eliminate private property rights and force us all to live in museums?”
THE ULTIMATE ARBITERS
Like so many demolition fights, commissioners seemed destined to make the final decisions on the Blue Range cribs and the house on State Street.
They have already weighed in once on the cribs, cutting a 90-day stay to 45 days, but if the HPC still opposes partial demolition after that and Hoffman and Staack’s still support it, the council will decide.
Nine commissioners voted for the 45-day delay, with Fisher, John Sorich and Josh O’Neill voting against it. That doesn’t mean a vote on actual demolition would be the same.
Opinions, comments, concerns and questions were all over the board during a long and contentious debate on the issue last Wednesday night.
Hoffman was allowed to kick things off. He said he’d owned the buildings for 40 years, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in upkeep, and had only one offer to buy it. The Staack family were responsible, successful people in Butte and didn’t take demolition lightly, he said. He also said nobody from the HPC had financial “skin in the game.”
“I suggest that anyone who has dreams of saving the building, they should stop and look at the condition of the building,” Hoffman said.
Commissioner Dan Callahan said he would accept that offer.
“I would love to go through it and see for ourselves before we ever take a vote on what we should do or shouldn’t do,” he said.
Brian Staack, Ed Staack’s son, said their initial hope was to buy the buildings and save them. But after extensive looks and the engineer’s survey, some parts were simply not fixable, he said.
Commissioner John Riordan said a demolition delay was the only thing on the table, and citing city ordinances, said it should be honored. A better solution might be found, he suggested, and Peggy Guccione’s proposal could be considered.
But Commissioner Jay Fortune, project manager for family-owned Jay Fortune Construction in Butte, said Hoffman and Staack’s had a private agreement and it wasn’t the council’s place to force a third party into the equation. He also opposed a stay.
“I just think a legitimate local business is trying to do something with economic growth and I think we should support it instead of fighting for a building that’s falling apart,” he said.
While several letters from citizens opposing demolition were read into the record, and McCormick defended the stay, Ed Randall — the community enrichment director — said the building was dangerous and the county had deemed it so.
Randall apologized to Hoffman and the Staacks for any negative comments and slights they had endured and for the process playing out.
“Don’t take it personal,” he said. “I know you’re trying to do what’s best for Butte, what’s best for yourselves.”
Randall said county has tried to write or amend ordinances over the last several years to avoid the very situation playing out now. They include a dangerous building exemption that can override HPC actions.
His department has an issue with the 90-day stay, he said, and he would probably be meeting with the county attorney to discuss it depending on what the council decided.
“That’s not a threat, that’s just saying that I think we have a conflict there,” he said.
Commissioner O’Neill suggested that efforts to save historic buildings start before they’re up for sale or demolition. The pattern now, he said, is “it’s going to be torn down, now we have to save it.”
Hoffman asked about liability and who would be responsible if something bad happened to the buildings during a 90-day demolition delay imposed by the HPC, a county board.
County Attorney Eileen Joyce said she supposed there was potential liability for the local government, but that would be for a court to determine.
Chris Harris, a longtime carpenter and restoration contractor, has worked on projects in Butte and numerous other places in Montana, Wyoming, Utah and California.
In Butte, he says, McCormick and the HPC brush property rights aside and subjects owners and developers to countless, costly delays that affect their lives and their pocketbooks.
“They are ready to step up and make a move on things and they get locked down and spun around in a process that goes on or can go on for months,” he said. “To nip at these people’s heels costs them a lot of money and they can’t do it.”
Small developers can’t afford to “sit on the sidelines” for months because it costs too much money, Harris said, and legally, they shouldn’t have to.
As long as building or homeowners abide by existing laws on zoning, planning and building safety codes, they can legally do what they want irrespective of historic district designations and Butte’s preservation rules and regulations, Harris says.
“It’s unfortunate that the Historic Preservation Commission and the historic preservation officer feel that they can involve themselves in somebody’s private business,” he said.
J.P. Gallagher, the county’s chief executive, says Butte-Silver Bow has ordinances “at odds with each other” and he, too, has questions about the HPC’s recent decisions.
He said Hoffman and Staack’s have done everything they were supposed to do and when the county tagged the buildings as dangerous, they presented an abatement plant including partial demolition that the county approved.
Then the HPC — an advisory board, Gallagher noted — imposed stipulations requiring them to advertise the buildings for alternative use.
Gallagher said a real-estate agent told him that legally, because there is already a buy-sell agreement, they can’t list the property for sale. But there’s a bigger question.
“We have an advisory board that’s putting things onto private owners that they have to do, which is to offer it for sale or go into partnership with other people, and I don’t know that the government can demand that,” he said.
He has questions about preservation officials’ decisions in the Floral Park case, too.
They have determined that the house on State Street wouldn’t be historic on its own, Gallaher said, but it could be a “contributing factor” in a “potential historic district” that the county has no intention of trying to make an historical district.
That might all be allowed under interpretations of state laws and ordinances, Gallagher said, but it’s questionable, confusing and perhaps out of place.
“We have our historic district and we need to pay close attention to that, but when we’re extending it countywide and regulating on this, it becomes (a question of) ownership rights and what are their rights to be able to do things to their own properties and at what level can government stop them from doing that,” he said.