Demolition of historic Central School is slated to proceed after a district judge dismissed a lawsuit seeking to prevent it Wednesday.

During Wednesday's hearing in the lawsuit filed by developer and historic preservation advocates Alan and Nancy Nicholson, Judge Michael McMahon ruled that the school district has "exclusive and sole authority" over its Central School property.

Before the judge issued his decision, the attorneys for the Nicholsons argued that the city commission failed to follow proper procedures when it approved the demolition permit. They contended both financial and intangible harm from the demolition of the school, which is considered a contributing building to Helena’s designated historic district.

The lawsuit sought to enjoin the city and school district and invalidate the demolition permit with an injunction.

At issue was whether the city and school district properly followed Helena’s historic preservation ordinance, and ultimately whether the school district was required by law to follow the city's procedures. 

“The reason they brought this suit was process,” said Mark Mac Smith, attorney for the Nicholsons. “They realize at the end of the day it’s not their decision whether this building gets renovated. Ideally that would’ve been great, but it’s not their decision to make.”

The Nicholsons have been outspoken about their desire to see the current building renovated and classes restored. The building has been empty for years due to seismic concerns, and students in the neighborhood are bused to classes at Central-Linc Elementary.

The district’s attorney Elizabeth O’Halloran told McMahon that the district chose to enter into the public process with the city to further public involvement, and that involvement “was very valuable.” Both the district and city recognized the “limitations” of the city’s authority, she added.

Deputy city attorney Iryna O’Connor told McMahon that a public entity “can always do more than the law allows for,” and in this case the district chose to comply with requirements imposed by the city commission for the demolition permit.

An attorney representing a coalition of Central parents also spoke in favor of dismissing the lawsuit.

The hearing included testimony by Alan Nicolson, as well as the school district's Superintendent Jack Copps and Assistant Superintendent Greg Upham. The Nicholsons brought experts in historic preservation from the state and county, who spoke to the historic value of Central and the importance of preservation for cultural and economic reasons. The city and district brought experts in construction to speak to the costs and ramifications of waiting to start construction.

Nicholson detailed a decades-long career renovating historic buildings, particularly in Helena’s downtown. He told the court he served as part of the advisory committee that helped develop the historic preservation ordinance in the 1980s.

“What we’re asking in this case is not that we get some immediate financial benefit – the exact opposite is true,” he said. “I’ve watched and Nancy watched the city commission and the city essentially eviscerate the historic preservation ordinance,” which has ramifications for anyone wanting to demolish a historic structure.

Copps testified that the district had weighed renovation as an option, but “the district has no intent to renovate,” he said. Delaying the project with an injunction has the potential to “upend the process” of selling bonds. Another option of building a new school next to the existing building comes with its own share of problems, he added.

Upham testified that an injunction could cause the district to split its bond offerings and place an additional expense of up to $45,000. The current building is a safety concern, while a new school would offer increased space for a modern learning environment, he told the court.

McMahon was unswayed by the Nicholsons’ argument that the district or city had failed to abide by the proper demolition process, continuing to come back to the legal theory that the ordinance is unenforceable on the other public body. At one time calling the statute granting sole authority to school districts “a mandate” from the Legislature, he ruled that whether the district or city followed the procedures was a moot point.

“This court concludes the Montana Constitution grants exclusive and sole authority to school boards of trustees to control and supervise schools and develop the full educational potential of each person,” McMahon said in his oral ruling. “Montana law expressly prohibits a local government, such as the city of Helena, from exercising any power that applies to or affects the local school system.”

More than 74 percent of voters in May approved a $63 million bond, which calls for the demolition and replacement of historic Central School. New Bryant and Jim Darcy schools are also part of the bond package.

Alan Nicholson said afterward that he needed to process the ruling and has concerns about what it could mean for the future enforcement of the city’s historic preservation ordinance. He was unsure about what the ruling meant for the future of the lawsuit.

Copps said he was pleased with the ruling and validation from the bond vote. The district will proceed with the demolition, he said.

City manager Ron Alles was also pleased with the outcome and believed it meant the city and school district could continue to work cooperatively.

“They’ve been a pleasure to work with and very up-front with their plans to us,” he said.

Alles said there has always been some question over whether the ordinance gave the city jurisdiction over the district property, but the district has been cooperative in terms of the commission’s desires for historic preservation.

“We erred on the side of public participation in this case, and I don’t see any downsides to that,” he said.

Alles acknowledged “some ambiguities” in the ordinance and says the city plans to review and potentially update it to make it clearer.

Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin

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Natural Resources Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter / Assistant Editor for The Independent Record.

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