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Lawsuit dismissed, clearing way for demolition of Rock Island County courthouse
RI COUNTY COURTHOUSE

Lawsuit dismissed, clearing way for demolition of Rock Island County courthouse

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PEORIA — A lawsuit filed in an effort to halt demolition of the Rock Island County Courthouse has been dismissed.

During a hearing Tuesday, Peoria County 10th Circuit Judge Jodi Hoos dismissed the case, saying Rock Island County is exempt from the Illinois State Agency Historic Resources Preservation Act.

The hearing was moved to Peoria County to avoid conflicts of interest.

"My ruling today is not whether to demolish the courthouse is right or wrong; my ruling is whether plaintiffs have established valid claims under the law. I found they have not," Hoos said.

The temporary restraining order postponing demolition has been lifted effective immediately.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs asked that the temporary restraining order remain in place for seven days until an appeal can be filed.

"Having heard oral motions, I am going to deny that request," Hoos said. "It's not like it's going to be torn down tomorrow."

"They have a crane there," plaintiffs' attorney Tom Quinn said.

"I have to follow the law," Hoos said.

Rock Island County State's Attorney John McGehee said the Public Building Commission would decide when demolition would take place.

"I thought the judge was extremely legal today," McGehee said. "She followed the law as she saw fit. I thought her decision was made with common sense. She spent a lot of time reading statutes and other case law. She laid it out in a very clear and concise way."

Six plaintiffs had joined in a civil suit against Rock Island County and the Rock Island County Public Building Commission (PBC) to stop demolition of the courthouse, built between 1895 and 1897.

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 the suit Feb. 6 in Rock Island County.

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

McGehee hired Bozeman, Neighbor, Patton & Noe LLP to represent the county. The PBC was represented by William Stengel of Stengel, Bailey & Robertson.

The plaintiffs were represented by Chicago law firm Jenner & Block.

Attorney Bill Rector of Bozeman, Neighbor, Patton & Noe, said the Historic Resources Preservation Act was intended to protect historic buildings under the state's control.

"The Act expressly exempts local governmental units," Rector said. "The purpose of the Preservation Act cannot be to allow the (Illinois Department of Natural Resources) and the State Historic Preservation Office to interfere with the county board's ability to carry out its statutory responsibility to provide and maintain court facilities and a jail pursuant to an order issued by the Chief Judge (Walter Braud).

"In spite of the plaintiffs' argument, the language of the Preservation Act cannot be twisted to apply here to a public undertaking by a nonstate agency," Rector said.

The State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), an arm of IDNR, withdrew its storm water runoff permit in November after discovering demolition of the courthouse was not included in the overall plan for construction of the Justice Center Annex, which was completed in December.

Lacking a permit from the SHPO, the city of Rock Island denied the county a demolition permit. But the county issued its own demolition permit March 1, claiming the courthouse was never officially annexed into the city of Rock Island and therefore, is located in the county, not the city.

Hoos agreed with the county and PBC that the storm water runoff permit is not pertinent to demolition of the courthouse.

"The plaintiffs' attempt to bootstrap the argument that the application to the (SHPO) triggers the state agency, which triggers the Historic Resources Preservation Act ... I agree with the defendants on this issue," Hoos said. "I don't think getting a permit for water runoff triggers the Act. This is not a stamp of approval needed for demolition of the courthouse on how they run the water.

"Every individual who would have to get a permit to remove a shed from their backyard, or get a permit to take something down, every time they had to get a permit, it would overtake the statute," Hoos said.

One of the motions being argued during Tuesday's hearing was whether the use of bond money borrowed for the purpose of annex construction could be used by the Public Building Commission for the purpose of courthouse demolition.

Stengel argued a legal opinion issued by bond counsel Chapman & Cutler, LLP, of Chicago, last year stated the use of $1.6 million in leftover bond funds could be used for demolition.

Jenner & Block attorney Tom Quinn dismissed the correspondence from Chapman & Cutler.

"That's a paid opinion letter from the same counsel that gave them the bond opinion to pursue the annex project in the first place," Quinn said. "It contains very little argument or reasoning."

Quinn challenged the authority of Rock Island County Chief Judge Walter Braud over a building that is technically no longer a courthouse.

"The courthouse isn't a courthouse anymore," Quinn said. "The annex is the courthouse. The courthouse is now a building owned by the county, just like any other building. Can the judge say the church across the street, pursuant to my authority, I have determined is now a court? Now that I have made that determination, that building should be knocked down, which I have the authority to do?"

Moline Preservation Society President Diann Moore was present at Tuesday's hearing.

"I'm extremely disappointed," Moore said. "I don't agree with (Hoos) interpretation, but everybody has their way of looking at things, I guess."

Frank Butterfield, director of the Landmarks Illinois Springfield office, said he was saddened by the court's decision.

"We are disappointed with this outcome; we believe the ruling to be incorrect," Butterfield said. "We are looking into our options for appeal."

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