The historic Rock Island County Courthouse in Rock Island.

ROCK ISLAND — A lawsuit filed against Rock Island County and the Public Building Commission to stop demolition of the historic Rock Island County courthouse has been moved to Peoria County.

The first hearing will be held at 2 p.m. Wednesday at the Peoria County courthouse, 324 Main St., Peoria. 

Peoria County Judge Jodi Hoos has been assigned to the case.

Landmarks Illinois, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Rock Island Preservation Society, the Moline Preservation Society, the Broadway Historic District Association and Frederick Shaw, one of the bondholders in the Justice Center Annex project, filed suit Feb. 6 in Rock Island County.

Diane Oestreich, a member of the Rock Island Preservation Society, has joined as an additional plaintiff in the case as a taxpayer. 

Rock Island County States Attorney John McGehee said he hired Bozeman, Neighbor, Patton & Noe, LLP to represent the county.

"They are a reputable law firm and they've done other county work in the past," McGehee said. "This is a case that involves a lot of complex civil issues, and I thought it was best to hire lawyers that specialize in civil litigation due to the complexity of the issues. 

"They have agreed to $200 an hour, lower than their normal rate," McGehee said, noting it is still considered a Rock Island County case. 

Landmarks Illinois President Bonnie McDonald said Chicago law firm Jenner & Block was providing its services on a pro bono basis.

The plaintiffs filed a 364-page complaint that includes numerous examples of case law and states the county and Public Building Commission are in violation of the Illinois State Agency Historic Resources Preservation Act and the Illinois Public Building Commission Act if demolition proceeds.

The complaint also states the Public Building Commission is "operating outside the scope of its operation" by using bond funds borrowed for the purpose of Justice Center Annex construction to be used to pay for courthouse demolition.

Landmarks Illinois listed the courthouse, built between 1895-97, on its 2018 Most Endangered Historic Places in Illinois.

Public Building Commission attorney William Stengel filed a motion asking for the case to be dismissed, and Jenner & Block filed a temporary restraining order to stop demolition from moving forward.  

McDonald said Landmarks Illinois has filed an injunction to prevent any more work from happening at the building considering additional damage has been caused by asbestos abatement. 

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McDonald said the case was moved out of Rock Island County at the request of 14th Circuit Court Chief Judge Walter Braud's office. 

"(Braud) officially requested that our case be reassigned by the Illinois State Supreme Court," McDonald said. "He did not believe an unconflicted judge could be assigned in the 14th circuit. We, of course, want a fair trial and I think this is highly appropriate. Our attorneys have been coordinating with the different plaintiffs; we feel very prepared."

McDonald said she had a commitment from the Public Building Commission that it would not do any more internal demolition work.

"This was communicated through our attorneys shortly after the suit was filed," McDonald said. "Our attorney from Jenner & Block followed up with an email to document the verbal offer."

McDonald said when Landmarks Illinois listed the courthouse on its Most Endangered list, it offered to bring in structural engineers Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates to evaluate the building. 

She said photographs presented by Rock Island County Sheriff Gerry Bustos to county board members Feb. 19 to bolster the argument for demolition did not prove the building was unsalvageable. 

"I would say the case trying to be made with photographs for (demolition) is based on no professional evaluation by a structural engineer," McDonald said. "The photos I'm seeing are largely the result of the asbetos abatement in violation of the law. The illegal removal as cause for demolition of the courthouse seems like circular logic. 

"The photos are not unusual for us in preservation," McDonald said. "It is commonplace to see the removal of floor tiles or exposed piping. It is the way these photos are being used to manipulate the perception that claiming the courthouse is structurally deficient. There has been no professional analysis to demonstrate it."

McDonald said demolishing the courthouse would be a waste of taxpayers' dollars.

"It can be put on the tax rolls and the county will benefit from the income tax and property taxes generated, which a park will not do," she said. 

Broadway Historic District Association President Bridget Ehrmann said she was hoping for the best outcome at Wednesday's hearing. She agrees with McDonald that the courthouse should be used to generate more tax dollars for the county. 

"Our county taxes were just raised 11.9 percent in December," Ehrmann said. "In order to reduce the tax burden on citizens, we need to see more businesses move into our county to provide increased tax revenue. The most responsible path forward would be for the county to sell the building to one of the developers who have offered to buy it.

"Restoration would put millions into our county and would provide more jobs," Ehrmann said. "Using our tax dollars to demolish a building that has interested investors is waste of our limited resources."

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