Archive for Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Proposal to raze house likely to raise controversy

October 14, 2003


A crumbling house that served as a vault for old court files is slated for a change of address.

Or perhaps demolition.

The 115-year-old home, across Rhode Island Street from the Douglas County Judicial & Law Enforcement Center, needs to be cleared out, Douglas County commissioners have decided.

The county-owned structure either should be moved or razed -- anything to rid the county of a persistent eyesore that continues to pose a liability, commissioners say.

They've told administrators to clear a regulatory path for its removal, a process that must be cleared by the city's Historic Resources Commission, given the property's proximity to two historic landmarks. It is within 500 feet of both the Douglas County Courthouse, 1100 Mass., and the Old English Lutheran Church, 1040 N.H.

"The process will be initiated by the end of the year," said Craig Weinaug, county administrator.

And then the real work begins: deciding what to do with the open lot and the county's two others next door.

Paved parking

For more than a decade, various commissioners have proposed turning the properties into a parking lot -- for use by county employees or visitors to the law enforcement center and nearby Douglas County Courthouse.

Two of the lots were donated to the county more than a decade ago, for future use as parking lots.

But each time commissioners have suggested replacing the green space with pavement, nearby residents have been there to repel encroachment by the county -- and, by extension, downtown -- into their neighborhood.

"They should not do anything that's detrimental to the residential character of our neighborhood, and a parking lot is," said Ed Tato, president of the East Lawrence Neighborhood Assn. "It hurts us. How much damage it will do, it's hard to say. But it doesn't help the residential character of the neighborhood, and we need help."

But such help also has been hard to come by.

Previous efforts by commissioners to sell the land have been unable to muster enough votes. While most county decisions require only a simple majority -- two out of three votes -- state law stipulates that the sale of any property worth at least $50,000 requires a unanimous vote.

And the property at 1120 R.I. is valued at $74,000 by the county appraiser.

"I anticipate controversy," said Weinaug, who's been following the issue for more than 11 years. "I'm certain of controversy."

For sale

Commissioner Charles Jones, whose district includes the lots and surrounding neighborhood, wants to sell all three lots for development of affordable housing. The proceeds then could be channeled to an underfunded county project, he said, such as upgrading the Douglas County 4-H Fairgrounds.

"Those things have been a headache," Jones said of the lots. "They haven't been doing anybody any good."

But Commissioner Jere McElhaney, a longtime advocate for upgrading the fairgrounds, isn't sold on the idea. He still wants additional parking for county employees.

"We have to take care of our employees," McElhaney said. "They're wondering why this commission has been unresponsive and why we're caving in to a neighborhood group ... that only sees things one way."

That leaves Bob Johnson, commission chairman, with the swing vote. And he's not yet ready to commit to a course of action.

"I agree with both of these guys," Johnson said. "We can't do that, so I have to find some middle ground."

Tenants to Homeowners, an organization that works to provide affordable housing in Lawrence, has proposed leasing the county lots and turning them into a residential project. But commissioners have not formally considered that idea.

But an outright sale of the lots, in Johnson's mind, is out of the question, given the county's uncertain future needs.

"The only thing we know for sure is, if we don't have 'em, we'll never get 'em," he said.

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