Wichita A Kansas man who demolished a historic downtown building in Harper pleaded not guilty Wednesday to federal charges that he failed to notify state and federal environmental regulators.
Hugh Allen Barker, 54, of Harper, remains free on an unsecured $25,000 bond after appearing in federal court in Wichita to answer an indictment related to the 2008 destruction of the Buckeye Building. The circa 1885 building was owned by The Balmer Fund, a nonprofit group that restores historic buildings in Kansas.
If convicted, he faces up to two years in prison and a fine up to $250,000. His defense attorney, Michael Hepperly, declined comment after the hearing.
Barker, the owner of Barker Sand and Gravel, contracted with the city to demolish the building after authorities condemned it.
A two-count federal indictment filed last month accuses Barker of not informing either the Environmental Protection Agency or the Kansas Department of Health and Environment of the intention to demolish the facility. That notice would have required Barker to detail for regulators how he planned to safely handle the asbestos removal and disposal, among other things.
The demolition at issue in this latest indictment came while Barker was on federal probation following his sentencing just two months earlier for polluting the East Sand Creek with fill material and diverting its water for his own use. He had been sentenced in August 2008 to years of supervised release after pleading guilty to that 2007 indictment.
Barker also has a 2008 misdemeanor conviction for a solid waste violation, according to Harper County District Court records.
No background check
Harper Mayor Rory Pugh said the city does not do background checks on every contractor because its city code does not require them for city licenses. Pugh, who was not the mayor at that time, said he does not know whether city officials knew of Barker’s environmental violations when they hired him and his company.
“I guess maybe he didn’t do some things right that he needed to do, that is why there is an indictment,” Pugh said. “That is all on him and his end of the contract. None of that can come back on the city from my understanding of it.”
Although the indictment against Barker is confined to environmental issues, the destruction of the Buckeye Building has long been a contentious issue with The Balmer Fund. The building during its heyday housed offices and later was used for a variety store and an antique mall.
A ‘character-defining building’
The Kansas State Historical Society told city officials in a 2008 letter that while the Buckeye Building itself was ineligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places because its front facade had been altered, it was still considered a “character-defining building” in the commercial block surrounding another building which was on the registry.
Rosalea Hostetier, the founder and director of The Balmer Fund, contends that the Buckeye Building was structurally sound, an argument which is supported by the engineering report prepared D&B Engineering in Wichita.
Hostetier claims the city began its condemnation procedures without inspecting the building and that it was not until later in the process that someone cleanly sawed off a support beam in the roof to cause the roof to fall in. The Balmer Fund had plans to restore the building and lease it for $1 a year to the city for a library, and already had preliminary drawings drawn up by an architect for the library when the city tore it down.
“To lose the historic Buckeye in such an underhanded brutal manner is a pain I cannot describe,” Hostetier said. “I have to see the vacant lot every time I go to the Post Office.”