Jeff council poised to accept ‘gift’ of historic house

A historic Jefferson home will be saved from demolition if city council members follow the recommendation of their housing committee.

The housing committee met prior to the council’s regular meeting Tuesday. City building official Nick Sorensen fleshed out a proposal he presented at the last council meeting to move the house now at 305 W. State St to a vacant city-owned lot at 407 W. Lincoln Way.
Central Christian Church now owns the 1890 Victorian home. The church purchased the house to have control of the property and has offered to give it to the city, under the condition that it be moved off the lot. Church board members told Sorensen their intention is to raze the house if the city doesn’t accept the “gift.”

The “gift” would cost the city between $105,600 and $128,025, according to Sorensen’s best-case and worst-case estimates. That’s the cost to build a new foundation on W. Lincoln Way, pick up and move the house, reconnect the plumbing, electrical and HVAC, and have the house professionally painted.

The city would then sell the house with the goal of recouping the cost. The city would borrow the money from Region XII Council of Governments as a 3 percent, interest-only loan, and repay the principle when the house sells.

Sorensen provided several pages of figures showing cost estimates, how the loan would impact the city’s debt capacity or fund balance, the cost of mowing the 20 vacant lots the city owns (on which no property tax is collected), and the expected assessment of the house after it’s moved and rehabbed. He showed a newspaper clipping from 1967 showing another large house being moved to a new location, and a newspaper clipping from 1962 when 305 W. State St was a nursing home. (The house was returned to a single-family home in the late 1980s.)

Sorensen listed as positives of the project using a vacant lot for a home that would fit well in the neighborhood; saving a historic home; having volunteers ready to help with the project; and being able to recapture all the costs as well as collect property tax going forward.

Negatives aspects of the project are that the city would take on the risk of selling the house; it would go against either the city’s debt capacity or fund balance; the old house would initially result in less property tax than if a new house were built on the lot; city staff time would be used; and the trees would need to be trimmed back to the curb in the three blocks the house would be moved.

Sorensen said he had three calls from residents in support of the idea, including the property owner to the south of 407 W. Lincoln Way. He also heard some concern about how long it might take to sell the house.

“It is a unique situation,” Sorensen said. “We are assuming risk, absolutely. I do think it would garner attention from areas we haven’t thought of. That people will pay attention – that we have a housing problem, we’ve been tearing them down for years, but we’re going to try to save one this time.”

Council members Harry Ahrenholtz, Matt Wetrich and Matt Gordon are on the housing committee. They all made comments in support of the project.

Ahrenholtz pointed out that it wouldn’t detract from the city’s ability to carry out other housing projects, and that a new house would not fit into the neighborhood. Wetrich called the project “a great idea,” and said it’s unlikely anyone would build a new house on one of the city’s vacant lots.

Gordon said his initial reaction to the project was negative, but after a lot of thought, and coming up with some housing ideas to talk about in the future, he thinks the council should act on the opportunity before it. “High end, we’ve got $150,000 into it. We’ve got an opportunity to move this house, get some property taxes out of it, and we’ll get it sold. Will we sit on it for four years? Yes, we could…. It’s a calculated risk. Worst case scenario this is one of the bigger mistakes we’ve made with our housing, but we won’t shut the city down with that cost,” Gordon said.

He said not much is being done now with housing, and if the city doesn’t do something, the number of empty lots will increase. “At some point we’ve got to take a risk on something. This has been well thought through and I support the idea.”

Gordon also added that the risk would not be different than rehabbing the upstairs apartments around the downtown square, another idea the council has discussed.
Council member Larry Teeples said he wasn’t “really against it,” but after council member Dave Sloan said he is against the project due to the risk of not being able to sell the house, Teeples muttered under his breath that he agrees with Sloan.

When mayor Craig Berry polled the council, Sloan and Teeples both said “no,” while the other three said “yes.”

The item was on the agenda as a discussion item. It will be on the agenda for a vote at the May 22 meeting.

The only other item on the agenda was approval of an ordinance for the RAGBRAI® overnight stay July 23. The ordinance is similar to ordinances adopted by every RAGBRAI overnight town and is intended “to assist city officials and the RAGBRAI committee deal with public health and safety issues created by the 2018 event.”

It allows the RAGBRAI committee to set and collect vendor fees, allows for only one outdoor alcoholic beverage garden, allows for abatement of any nuisances, and suspends the city’s parking ordinances against parking between a residential lot line and the curb and parking of RVs and trailers during the overnight.

The ordinance will have no force or effect after July 24.

The council approved the first reading, waived the second and third reading, and then adopted the ordinance.

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