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Courthouse hearing in Peoria

Frank Butterfield, left, talk with his attorneys following a hearing Wednesday, March 6 in Peoria during which Judge Jodi Hoos issued a temporary restraining order to delay demolition of the Rock Island County courthouse. 

PEORIA — A temporary restraining order was granted Wednesday to delay demolition of the historic Rock Island County Courthouse.

Peoria County 10th Circuit Judge Jodi Hoos ruled Wednesday the plaintiffs in a civil suit that was filed to stop the proposed demolition met the criteria required to issue the restraining order.

The restraining order will remain in effect until the next hearing, which will address the issue of whether the suit should be dismissed. It's set for 2 p.m. Tuesday, March 19 in Peoria. 

"My ruling today is not whether the courthouse should be demolished — that's not the issue. The only issue in front of me today is whether plaintiffs have established a case for a temporary restraining order," Hoos said.

"I do agree with the plaintiffs with the case they cited. Once a building is destroyed, it's destroyed."

Six plaintiffs joined in a civil suit against Rock Island County and the Rock Island County Public Building Commission (PBC) to stop demolition of the historic 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.

The case was moved to the 10th Circuit Court in Peoria County to prevent conflict of interest.

Hoos is requiring the plaintiffs to pay a $25,000 bond within 72 hours. The county and the PBC had asked for a bond of $1 million.

Rock Island County State's Attorney John 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 Tom Quinn, of Jenner & Block, argued that the PBC has no legal authority to demolish the courthouse. Quinn stated the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the city of Rock Island still have not issued demolition permits. 

Quinn said an administrative order issued Jan. 25 by Rock Island County 14th Circuit Chief Judge Walter Braud calling for the immediate demolition of the courthouse was "an abuse of authority.

"(Braud) ordered the use of non-judicial resources — because it's PBC money — to destroy a non-judicial building, because the PBC owns the building now, not the court" Quinn said. 

Quinn also argued the role of the PBC was to build "a good and sufficient jail, not to demolish a historic courthouse on a completely separate site. The only way to enlarge their purpose is to get voters' approval."

Stengel told Hoos the protection of the people using the Justice Center Annex, which serves as the new courthouse, is very important. He said allowing the vacant courthouse to remain standing presents a danger to annex employees and others since it is only 30 feet away. 

Stengel said a demolition permit was issued "three business days ago," by Rock Island County to Valley Construction. 

"The building is not in the city," Stengel said. "That piece of property was an original land grant from the government that was never annexed into the city. It's never been part of the city; it is part of the county."

Stengel said the PBC does not own the property, and is only involved through an intergovernmental agreement between the county and the PBC. 

However, county board members voted in July to transfer the deed of the courthouse to the PBC for the purpose of demolition.

Stengel argued that plaintiff Fred Shaw, as an individual taxpayer, should be responsible for posting bond on the temporary restraining order. 

"He can post the bond. (Shaw) is the one arguing about the bonds being used to finance (demolition)," Stengel said. 

"We have a momentum going. There is true economic benefit in terms of a quality construction manager and a quality contractor able to work cooperatively in this design-build concept," Stengel said. "To lose this momentum would be a terrible shame. We don't know how we could recover from that."

The attorney representing the county, Bill Rector, said a temporary restraining order would harm taxpayers and the county. 

"The demolition could be delayed indefinitely and poses risk to the annex," Rector said. "The plaintiffs lack standing to challenge the county."

Hoos said she did not put a lot of weight on the argument that homeless people might break into the vacant courthouse and start a fire. 

"The county would not be responsible anyway because (a vagrant) would be a trespasser," Hoos said. "It would not be a liability under those circumstances."

As Hoos was working with the attorneys to settle on a date for the next court hearing, Rector asked that the date be pushed up.

"The sooner, the better," Rector said. "This is causing real harm to the county."

"No offense, but I hear that excuse all the time," Hoos said. 

If Hoos does not dismiss the case on March 19, an injunction hearing is set for April 8 in Rock Island County. 

McGehee was present at Wednesday's hearing. After the ruling, he said Hoos was being cautious.

"We are going to be looking at the legalities of how we respond. This is an issue that has to be decided very quickly," McGehee said.

Frank Butterfield, director of the Landmarks Illinois Springfield office, thanked Hoos for her decision.

"We are continuing to have discussions with developers, many of whom continue to express interest in the courthouse," he said.

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