A lawsuit has been filed in Helena District Court seeking an injunction to halt demolition of Central School.
Developer Alan Nicholson and his wife Nancy Nicholson filed the suit Wednesday against the City of Helena and Helena Public School District No. 1. The Nicholsons have a long-standing interest in historic preservation.
The Helena Public Schools superintendent, school board president and Helena City Attorney say the suit is a setback for the district’s children.
The Helena City Commission voted Feb. 27 to approve the school district’s application for a demolition permit for historic Central School.
The school, which was built in 1914 and 1921, was designed by prominent architect George Carsley. It is on the National Register of Historic Places and is in the Downtown Helena Historic District.
The school district is running a $63 million bond election May 2 that would build new K-5 schools replacing Central, Jim Darcy and Bryant schools, as well as making security and technology improvements at all the elementary schools, including the middle schools.
The May 2 school bond election will go forward as planned, said Superintendent Jack Copps.
In their suit, Nicholson contends the City of Helena didn’t follow the requirements of the Helena Historic Preservation Ordinance or its Growth Policy in issuing the demolition permit.
In an interview Friday, Nicholson said the city changed and eliminated some of the requirements of the ordinance to suit the school district, specifically faulting the school district’s lack of a site plan. He also said the application for the permit was declared complete when it was not.
The suit asks that the city commission’s ruling be overturned, said Nicholson, and that the school district come back with another demolition permit application.
“They could issue a demolition permit again, but the school district would have to give reasons why it is seeking demolition, and the city would have to correct its application of the ordinance,” said Nicholson. “There would have to be a site plan.”
The school board favored renovating Central in the 2015 bond, Nicholson said, adding that since then no new engineering reports have come out since then indicating new problems. The earlier estimated cost for correcting Central’s seismic safety issues was $1,040,000.
All of the seismic and safety concerns, as well as issues about inadequate plumbing and electrical systems, would be addressed in a renovation, Nicholson said.
The demolition permit sets a bad precedent for anyone in the city who follows and wants to request a demolition permit, Nicholson said.
In response to the suit, Copps’ said, “The only thing I can say is I’m truly saddened by the event. I hope we can find our way forward and not continue this divisiveness in our community.”
He added, “I have known him (Nicholson) a long time. I am disappointed.”
“The injunction will not affect the bond election,” said Copps. “The bond election will continue as scheduled. If the bond passes, new schools will be built at Bryant and Jim Darcy schools. If the injunction remains, a new school at Central will be delayed until the injunction is lifted. If that does not happen, there’s a real possibility nothing will happen at the Central School site.”
“I think this is incredibly unfortunate timing,” said School Board Chair Aidan Myhre. “It is really sad for the community of Helena and the kids. I think its incredibly unfortunate for the children in this community in a time when our community is really rallying around and getting behind making a generational investment in our schools and solving problems that have been there for decades -- that the timing of this is completely selfish and unacceptable. I think he is singlehandedly trying to derail this bond -- as he has done in the past for completely selfish reasons."
Myhre added, "What’s sad is if he’s successful, we’re not going to have a downtown Central School. Like ever."
“We’re finally on the cusp of getting some enthusiasm back in that school,” said Myre, “and getting the Central community excited and looking forward to something. “That young principal and those teachers and kids, they just deserve so much more.”
Nicholson denied he is trying to derail the school bond, adding that to not have a school downtown “is not a sensible thing to do. It’s an empty threat. It would be a foolish and vindictive thing to do.” And it’s something Nicholson vowed he would fight.
The Nicholsons have a granddaughter who currently attends Central-Linc School, which is where Central School students were relocated after the downtown building was closed in March 2013 because of seismic safety concerns.
“It’s disappointing,” said Helena City Attorney Thomas Jodoin, “because it’s unfortunately going to draw this issue out even further.
“Obviously the City disagrees with Mr. and Mrs. Nicholson’s contentions. All the City was trying to do was follow its process.”
The complaint “conflates two distinct demolition permit processes and applications,” he said.
There's a demolition permit requirement under state building codes, requiring a site plan for emergency services and utilities before the demolition proceeds. This permit is granted administratively.
Historic buildings have to get approval from the city commission for demolition, which is a different process.
“The city will need to file a response,” said Jodoin, adding that he will be sitting down with the city commissioners to see how they want to proceed.
“To do what Mr. and Mrs. Nicholson think should have been done would have been legally unsupportable,” Jodoin said, adding that it would have required the applicant to submit things the code does not require. "Simply because you’ve done something a certain way in the past...that’s not a legal basis to continue to doing it that way. I have to rely on the city code.”