Two weeks ago, the 3rd District Appellate Court in Illinois put a temporary hold on the demolition of the historic Rock Island Courthouse.
The justices told the county it had to go through the consultation process mandated by the state’s historic resources preservation act, a ruling that capped a year-and-a-half-long legal battle in which local preservationists and Landmarks Illinois, a Chicago- and Springfield-based non-profit preservation group, sought to save the 124-year-old building.
No doubt, the ruling will extend this already long-running saga. But we think it also provides some clarity; and, it gives both sides an opportunity to take part in a process that could bolster public confidence in whatever turns out to be the final decision.
From the beginning, we have urged the county to steer clear of investing significant resources in the courthouse, which is vacant and has clearly seen better days. But we’ve also urged it to follow the law set up by the state to regulate and guard historic assets.
After reviewing the appellate court’s ruling, it’s clear the county and others advocating demolition of the courthouse got off track.
The appellate court found in the county’s favor on two counts, but importantly, it rejected the county's position that the state's preservation act doesn’t apply in this case because the county and Public Building Commission aren’t state agencies.
The court ruled, instead, that the legislature’s broad language in the law "plainly evinces" an intent to include local governments.
The court also faulted Walter Braud, the former chief judge of the 14th judicial circuit. A year and a half ago, Braud issued an administrative order that demanded the courthouse be demolished. Braud argued the decision was his and that any review by the executive branch would violate constitutional separation of powers.
The appellate court clearly found fault with his order. It called it "procedurally deficient" because it did not provide notice or involve a hearing. It also found fault with some of Braud’s constitutional arguments.
So, where does that leave us?
It doesn’t look like the county will appeal the ruling. Last week, County Administrator Jim Snider told us in an email that board chairman Richard Brunk was "working to formulate a plan to work with representatives of the (Illinois Department of Natural Resources) per the Appellate Court’s decision."
What exactly that plan will look like isn’t clear to us. How long this review will take also is not clear.
Preservationists have maintained there are valid, private sector options that provide a lifeline to the courthouse. But there are members of the county board who are skeptical of that proposition, who don’t see these as viable options; who believe, in the end, this review will inevitably lead to demolition.
It is our hope that all the parties involved in this already lengthy debate will go into this process with an open mind, with a commitment to follow the letter and spirit of the historic resources preservation law. That law requires that feasible and prudent alternatives be considered in cases in which a historic resource would be adversely affected. In the event there is no agreement, the law sets out a mediation process.
Again, we don’t know how long this will take. It is unfortunate this process wasn’t undertaken months ago.
However long it takes, though, we hope the participants will be mindful of the county’s scarce resources. The county's budget position is precarious, and it has had to rely recently on significant property tax increases.
At the same time, the county also has an obligation to honor the special place state law has given to historic buildings.
Now that the appellate court has made it clear the county must participate in this consultation process, we hope that all sides approach it in good faith. If that is done, it's entirely possible the public will have greater confidence in the outcome.
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