The Sad Saga of 439 East First Street

Preservations Save Our Springfield (SOS) shares their side of the story that led to the unfortunate demise of 439 East 1st Street.

Published March 28, 2016 in Neighborhoods -

On the surface, it appears that MCCD and the City did everything right. That they followed proper protocol and followed the law as they should. Dig a bit deeper and the facts tell a different story.

Step One: Code does not get Historic Preservation Commission permission to demolish

At the October 28, 2015 Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) meeting Municipal Code Compliance Division (MCCD) pulled off a last minute addition to the agenda. They forced an unannounced (meaning it was not on the agenda so therefore was added after the deadlines) Opinion of Appropriateness (OOA) to get support for the emergency demolition of 439 East First St. This was not some last minute, thrown together presentation either. Present from MCCD was Thomas Register (code enforcement inspector) and Michael Chao (code enforcement engineer)as well as Brian Moser, (head of code enforcement) , and perhaps more telling, Kimberly Scott, Mr. Moser's boss. To support her people, Ms Kimberly Scott also brought in Tom Goldsbury (head of Building Inspection Department). The discussion covers 39 pages (975 lines of text) in the minutes.

While they were obviously hoping to push something quickly past Staff (Historic Planning Department) and the HPC, the preservationists were there, watching. After much discussion, Historic Preservation Committee (HPC) said Furthermore, the commissioners felt and stated for the record that the house should be saved even if the rear addition was demolished. They voted on this as a strategy for the house, and unanimously approved their recommendation regarding the preservation of 439 East First Street.

At this point too, it may be worthwhile to ask ourselves a question. When the ordinances involved allow for the emergency demolition of even historic structures, why did the MCCD and Ms. Scott bother to work so hard to get approval of what they were indeed calling an emergency demolition? In the past, they have been successful in taking historic houses in Springfield as emergencies and filing the paperwork after the fact. What was different this time? The only answer I can come up with is that you can not utilize federal funds for emergency demolitions. By getting permission first, they can use federal dollars like unused NSP3 funds.

Step Two: Code does not get Historic Preservation Commission permission to demolish

For the December 9, 2015 HPC meeting an official COA (15-913) was presented by code enforcement to demolish this house. This time, staff approved the COA application. Double face palm. I do appreciate the issues staff has –- they need to follow the desires of the City, at times, to help insure their jobs. Still, this was a clear reversal of the discussion the commissioners had at the October meeting. No new evidence had been presented to warrant even considering a change from the OOA in October.

The discussion and public meeting over COA 15-913 took close to an hour and a half and covers 108 pages (2700 lines of text) . Brian Moser and Michael Chao were back and they brought Tom Goldsbury with them as well. Missing was Kimberly Scott this time. Although newly appointed department head Bill Killingsworth was there. Lots of city juice for one neglected home in Springfield.

Just about every person who spoke was against the demolition. Those same people also recognized that the rear addition was the issue and did indeed need to come down. In the end, the HPC voted to approve the COA but with the single condition that ONLY the rear addition or actually the rear enclosed porch, be demolished.

Step Three: The entire house gets demolished

Driving down the road, a PSOS member notices a fire hose stretching across the street. The hose leads to the back of the house where an assorted group of white trucks and people in khakis are watching the demolition of the structure from behind their steering wheels. A single man is holding a fire hose aimed loosely at the excavator.

The MCCD on site supervisor said that the house was deemed unsafe and needing to come down after an engineer walked inside. Preservation SOS members were then informed that the final order said that once the rear porch was removed, and if the Division (MCCD) decided it was a public threat, the entire house could be taken down. This puzzled those present who were actually in attendance at the December meeting.

Of course, the fact is that an excavator was brought to tear down the rear porch, which is about the equivalent of taking an atom bomb to a knife fight. While an engineer was present for a time, no one could remember his name. It began to look suspiciously like the intention from the start of the day was to take down the entire house.

When PSOS reviewed the actual Final Order, we saw that the personnel from MCCD were actually right in what they said. There were in fact two conditions to the approval of the demolition in the Final Order and MCCD did indeed follow the letter of the Final Order as it was written.

A review of the minutes from that hearing proved that the actual motion voted on was for the single condition of demolishing the rear enclosed porch only. No mention of anything else in the motion that was seconded and approved. There as a short discussion of what if the main house is found to be much worse after the enclosed rear porch is removed but it was suggested that the MCCD would have to come back to get a Minor Modified COA (MMA) because not enough was known about the main structure to even consider giving approval to tear it down.

439 East 1st Street in 1985.

Hmmm. The vote was only for one condition, but two conditions are on the Final Order, which was signed by Both the Chairman of the HPC, Barry B Underwood, and the Office of General Council representative to the HPC, Sondra R. Fetner. Wondering if there was any way that could be proper, I called the Office of General Council and asked this question: “If the HPC passes a motion to approve a COA with condition A and condition B, can the final order have conditions A, B and C?” An assistant answered but upon hearing the question, connected me with someone qualified to answer it. The response to the question was “no, the final order must match the passed motion.” To be doubly sure, someone else e-mailed the same basic question to the OGC but we have yet to receive a response from that e-mail request.

Underhanded? Illegal? Sounds like it. This “added condition” is what gave MCCD the permission to go ahead and take the entire house. Besides being unethical, this action also cost us taxpayers between an additional $10,000.00 to $26,000.00 over the approved taking of the enclosed rear porch and stabilizing the main house. Yes, a complete demo was far more expensive than saving the house. And that does not take in consideration that now we have a contaminated empty lot that will not generate any substantial tax revenue for many years if not decades to come.

It's important to now review the financial information presented by MCCSD itself. At both HPC meetings during which this demolition was discussed and denied, Municipal Code Compliance put into the public record proposals obtained from three different demolition/ general contractors. They were Hager Construction, CORE Construction and Bukhalters Wrecking.

Hager and CORE both only bid the complete demolition of the structure. Their proposals were $ 27,300.00 and $ 37,286.00 respectively. Bukhalters bid all three options. First was the rehabbing of the house at $ 126,500.00, then the partial demolition of the Rear enclosed porch only at $ 24, 295.00 and the total demolition at $ 39,140.00.

Since the HPC only approved the removal of the rear porch, which was bid by Bulhalters, one would expect then that Municipal Code Compliance would award the partial demolition as approved to Bukhalters. Rather than that common sense action, MCCD showed up at the site with Michael Lloyd's Hauling, which in the past has gotten a large percentage of demo contracts, including many emergencies. The contractor showed up with only a large dump truck and an excavator. Representatives from Preservation SOS never saw any indication of having materials on hand to stabilize and secure the main house after the removal enclosed rear porch.

Preservation SOS has also discovered that the permit was pulled as an emergency a week after the demolition and had a cost of $50,000.00 listed.

These facts seem to support the idea that MCCD never had any intentions of doing anything but demolishing the entire house and giving a fat contract to their favorite demo contractor.

A second development is that during a meeting called by the current chair of the Urban Core CPAC, Alison Good, to address the demolition issue and begin talking about solutions, Ms Sondra Fitner, Office of General Council's representative to the Historic Preservation Commission and signer of the incorrect final order, stated for the record that it was fine to add that extra condition as it is in the ordinance code that MCCD has the authority to take a structure as an emergency; she was simply reaffirming that fact.

Like so many other things this City has seemed to do and say involving this demolition, it almost sounds reasonable. But in looking at this and other Final Orders, it is not unusual to have an ordinance or two referenced when they are pertinent to the conditions of the final order. In fact, it is in the final order as a fact and finding that MCCD can indeed take anything they determine to be an immediate threat as an emergency. Are we now learning that the various ordinance codes that give power to the HPC and instruct us all to protect our historic structures are meaningless? I hope not. Can I now build that concrete block house in the middle of Springfield simply because it says I can elsewhere in the code regardless of what the HPC says? Of course not, or at least that is how it applies to you and me. The City? Not so much. You see there was no reason to change the decision of the HPC to include that second condition unless you wanted to help insure they could take the house and still meet the conditions of the COA. Unless you were a party to the ultimate goal of taking the entire house without thought of following the HPC's lawful decision.

So in summary, here is what we know:

• The Final Order was changed to insure that MCCD could ignore the lawful decision of the HPC and still be able to publicly state they were in the bounds of the Final Order.

• The MCCD personnel and leadership always intended to ignore the lawful decision of the HPC as shown by their actions and who they hired.

• The MCCD hired a demolition contractor who charged much more than the lawful quotes that they had already gotten, including the one that was much less to take the entire house.

What happens now? Hard to say. What we would like to have happen is that the leadership of MCCD be brought to task and held accountable for the wasteful and possibly illegal demolition. The HPC needs to be shaken up a bit in that Barry Underwood, current Chairman, perhaps needs to be removed so we can have a HPC member who puts value on what his peers vote upon. That leaves the lawyer, Ms. Fitner. I think the HPC also deserves a lawyer who will actually worry about the preservation of houses and not help MCCD demolish them.

We can use this case to see just how far some employees of this City are willing to go to insure their wishes are granted over the wishes of the residents of Jacksonville. Makes one wonder if they are willing to do this to tear down an old house, what is happening with the millions of Federal Funds coming in. How much better of a Jacksonville could we have if things were actually done properly.

Article by Preservation SOS

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