Two weeks later Jeff council nixes house project

The Jefferson city council turned down the gift of a historic home at its regular meeting Tuesday, two weeks after directing building and zoning officer Nick Sorensen to continue working on a proposal to relocate the house to a city-owned vacant lot three blocks away. Councilman Matt Gordon was the swing vote in 3-2 decisions both times, with a handful of vocal neighbors causing him to change his vote.

The house, a large Victorian house built in 1890 by E.E. Gallup, a grocer and the uncle of George Gallup, is located at 305 W. State St. Central Christian Church acquired the house in February, and now wants to use the lot on which it sits as greenspace. The church offered to give it to the city to be moved rather than raze it.

According to Sorensen, the city has torn down enough old houses and it’s time to save one. He spent countless hours getting cost estimates and presented detailed information two weeks ago about moving the house to a lot at 407 W. Lincoln Way. The moving project would cost the city between $108,000 and $124,600. That figure included building a 9-foot foundation, repairing damaged siding and painting the house. The intention was to have the house moved and painted before July 23. The city would recoup the cost by selling the house.

Council members Larry Teeples and Dave Sloan were against the project because of the cost and the risk involved in finding a buyer. Council members Matt Wetrich and Harry Ahrenholtz were in favor of the project. Gordon, who missed the April 24 meeting at which Sorensen gave preliminary information, said he was initially against the project, but after hearing the full presentation May 8, he could see merit to the project. The council voted 3-2 to direct Sorensen to keep moving on the project.

Reports from that presentation were in local media. Last Friday council members received a letter written by Denise O’Brien Van and signed by 13 people who live within a couple of blocks of the vacant lot and 19 other residents, urging the council not to proceed with the project. (The letter was posted on GreeneCountyNewsOnline under the Opinion tab.)

After a few questions at the May 22 meeting, Susan Laehn, who moved to Jefferson last summer when she married assistant county attorney Thomas Laehn, said they had chosen to move to Jefferson because “you feel like you’re in the middle of Americana,” that there aren’t neighborhoods full of “cookie cutter houses like Waukee or Ankeny.”

She said they are potential buyers for the house, that they have toured the house and found it to be “in remarkably good shape at its bones.”

She has previously rehabilitated an old house in London that needed extensive work, and is very interested in doing the same on the 1890 Gallup house. She said she knows what is involved and was comfortable with an estimated $100,000 in interior work needed. “I beg you, I implore you to save the house,” she said to the council.

Laehn also said that she and her husband are waiting until after the November general election to purchase a house. Thomas Laehn is running for county attorney; he has no opposition at this time, but a candidate could come forward until September to run against him

Six of those who signed the letter to the council attended the meeting, with O’Brien Van and Steve Brown doing most of the speaking on their behalf.

O’Brien Van read a prepared statement, telling the council that the possibility of recouping the money spent is “remote because buyers for this sort of property in small Iowa town probably do not exist.”

O’Brien Van continued, “We would have a huge eyesore as a neighbor. An unsold property that probably would continue to deteriorate. A property that the city could sell to a buyer unqualified to rehab it. A buyer who, when he realized he’d bought a lemon, could decide to become a landlord.”

Brown told the council there are two houses in the neighborhood of a similar age and style. One was on the market for two years and $60,000 was the highest price that was offered. Another has been on the market for three years without an offer.

Rick and Kathy Morain, who live immediately south of the now-vacant lot, said they would welcome the house in the neighborhood. Joan Wahl, who lives immediately east of the lot, is one of those who signed the letter. She asked about setback distances but didn’t say more.

Council members all said they have received telephone calls about the project. Teeples said all his callers were against the project. Wetrich said all but one of his callers were in favor of it.

Sloan pointed out that the project could happen without the city’s involvement. If someone else wanted to do it, the city would not have a reason to stop it, he said.

Duane Russell is on the church council at Central Christian. The church’s goal is to have greenspace ready by September when they begin a new year of youth programming. They had hoped for a decision on the future of the house by the end of this month. “That doesn’t mean that can’t change, but that was our goal,” Russell said. “I can’t speak for the whole board,” he added.

Near the end of the discussion, Gordon said, “I was against it, then I was for it. Now, if everyone in the neighborhood except one or two people don’t want it, I’d like to take that into consideration.”

“I think I can speak for the neighborhood when I say the vast majority of us are against this,” O’Brien Van said.

She repeated it would be an eyesore and would sit vacant.Wetrich asked what the ideal use for the lot would be. “I think it would be fine to build a nice house there. Not an extravagant house. My house is not an extravagant house and it fits in the neighborhood better than a three-story Victorian,” O’Brien Van said.

She said earlier in the discussion her house is 1,000 square-feet. (It was built in 1962, according to the assessor’s website.) The vacant lot is across the street from Brown Funeral Home, which has 3,267 square-feet of living space and was built in 1905.

Wetrich made a motion to accept the house from Central Christian Church. The motion was finally seconded b Sloan, saying, “I’ll second it so we can vote on it.” Wetrich and Ahrenholtz voted for the motion; Sloan, Teeples and Gordon voted against it.

In other business, the council approved a resolution to transfer two other vacant, city-owned lots to Region XII Council of Governments. The lots are located at 506 E. Clark St and 507 N. Cedar St. Both lots formerly had older homes on them. Region XII is applying for grant funds that would allow them to construct new homes and then sell them to middle-income buyers with significant down payment assistance. The lots would be used for those homes.

Karla Janning of Region XII showed two potential floor plans – one for a 1,000 square-foot, two-bedroom home that could sell for between $160-$170,000, but would be available to a qualified buyer at $113,000; and a 1,200 square-foot, three-bedroom home that could sell for $206,000 but would be available through the grant program for $160,000.

The council  opened the meeting with a public hearing and then approved an amendment to the current year budget to reflect expenses and revenues unplanned for when the budget was adopted 13 months ago.

The council approved appointing Susan Laehn and Mary Jane Fields to the library board of trustees, and approved a fireworks permit for Wild Rose Casino and Resort.

The council heard quarterly reports from Greene County Development Corporation director Ken Paxton and from the Jefferson Matters: Main Street board.

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