Friday, October 22, 2010

We did all we could with what we had

The Prairie Skyline Foundation and Preservation Alliance of Minnesota (PAM) were disappointed to learn last Thursday that Judge Michael Kraker denied their request for a temporary injunction to halt demolition of the historic Palace/Wayne Hotel in Crookston. Prairie Skyline and PAM had filed suit against the City of Crookston, Polk County, and the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board (EQB) as a last-ditch effort to save the endangered building, which anchors Crookston’s commercial historic district. The building is a contributing structure to a designated historic district; under the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act, an Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) is mandatory for such properties before they can be demolished in whole or in part. In June, the City and County requested and received an “emergency waiver” from the EQB, allowing them to avoid the preparation of an EAW. An EAW would have required public consideration of alternatives to demolition.

In his decision, Judge Kraker appeared to be swayed by the recent deterioration of the interior wooden light wells on the roof of the Wayne Hotel. The City and County have claimed that this deterioration is indication of imminent structural collapse, although the exterior masonry walls of the building show no sign of structural failure or significant deterioration. The preservation organizations’ request for a Temporary Restraining Order would have allowed them the opportunity to complete an independent structural assessment of the building. PAM, along with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, had offered to conduct and fully fund such a study in July, shortly after the EAW waiver was granted to the City.

Of particular concern to the three preservation organizations involved is the means by which the EAW waiver was handled. The decision to apply for the waiver was apparently made at the administrative level of City government, and required no public notice. Likewise, the waiver was granted by the EQB chair and forwarded to the City without public disclosure or opportunity for comment. Typically, EAW processes and decisions are published in the State Department of Administration’s biweekly EQB Monitor and as legal notices in area newspapers, and public comment is allowed for thirty days following each posting. The waiver rule itself seems reasonably designed to address a real emergency, but the EQB's broad application of the rule, and ignorance of its own language that the emergency action be limited to only that which is immediately necessary, ultimately doomed an important historic resource.
Of particular concern to the Prairie Skyline Foundation is the lack of vision for downtown Crookston and the apparent haste with which the City and County proceeded to destroy a significant building at the heart of downtown. When the local building inspector demands a structural engineer’s plans for all other building proposals in the area, it seems only fair to ask for a neutral structural engineer’s assessment of the Wayne Hotel. When County Commissioners hammered Prairie Skyline for a plan beyond stabilizing the Wayne Hotel, it is only fair to demand a plan from the City and County for the empty ugly space where something grand will be taken away forever without sufficient opportunity for public involvement.

In filing suit against the City, County, and EQB, Prairie Skyline and PAM took the only legal tool available to them as concerned citizen organizations. Hopefully this lawsuit will send a message to all concerned that the public has watchdogs overseeing the application of the EAW waiver rule and local government’s compliance with state environmental laws as they pertain to historic properties.


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