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Properties stay in historic district: City sends developer back to Preservation Commission

Luke Vander Bleek owns four properties on U.S. Route 30 near Jackson Street in Morrison but can’t develop the land since the area has been deemed a historic area.
Luke Vander Bleek owns four properties on U.S. Route 30 near Jackson Street in Morrison but can’t develop the land since the area has been deemed a historic area.

MORRISON – About 30 area residents walked out of Monday’s City Council meeting, after the council declined to overrule its Historic Preservation Commission and allow a developer to withdraw from the Historic District.

Luke Vander Bleek wants to tear down four vacant houses in the 500 block of East Lincolnway and develop the land, which already is zoned for commercial use. But he refuses to invest another dollar, he said, until the four lots are removed from the Lincolnway Historic District.

The City Council voted 4-2 to deny Vander Bleek’s request, marking the most recent episode in an increasingly bitter fight between city officials, who are trying to breathe new life into a stagnant downtown economy, and area business owners, who say they were left out of the planning process.

Alderwoman Barb Bees, who has been an outspoken proponent of historic preservation, summed up the council’s position since the district was expanded to run from Jackson Street to Rock Creek about one year ago.

“I understand that this may not be in your best interest, but the council has to act in the best interest of the community as a whole – how this will affect the community 5 years, 10 or 25 years down the road,” Bees said. “There is all kinds of research to show that historic preservation pays off.”

Requirements that the Historic Preservation Commission approve demolition permits then authorize development plans represent “a major obstacle to private development” and “a grab at personal property rights,” Vander Bleek said.

Vander Bleek has become something of a rallying point for business owners opposed to historic preservation in its current terms.

William Simpson, a dentist and former Morrison Economic Development Commission member, asked the council “to take a hard look” at repealing the preservation ordinance.

Michael Blean, a partner at Ken Kophamer Realty and B.K. Appraisal, said the Historic District “’diminished the value of every property ... by diminishing the property rights of those owners.”

If done differently, historic preservation could lift the city’s overall property value, Blean said, but not the way it is now.

“I’m not against historic preservation, but there are too many properties along Route 30 that have no historical value,” he said.

The Morrison Area Development Corp., too, has joined the ranks of those opposed to the city’s preservation ordinance.

In a letter to the council, the Development Corp. wrote that historic districts can have positive outcomes “when effectively implemented” and asked the city to start over on its preservation efforts.

Vander Bleek is scheduled to go before the Historic Preservation Commission tonight to ask to be allowed to tear down two of the four houses, but said he will boycott the hearing.

“They can approve those permits without me there,” he said. “But I don’t want to invest one dollar in tearing off shingle one if I don’t even know whether I can tear down the other two [houses] ... where I can build a parking lot ... what type of architectural plans I can have that someone else wants to develop for me.”

“I’m not investing any more money in that property until I know I can do what I want with it,” Vander Bleek said.

“We’ve got this international economic crisis, and municipal government is plunging itself into debt and doing things that are adverse to private development,” Vander Bleek said in an interview Monday afternoon. “Do this [historic preservation] some other time, when things are better, if you want to make a grab at private business.”

Preservation Commission meets tonight

Morrison Historic Preservation Commission meets at 5 tonight in City Hall, 200 W. Main St.

The commission is set to decide whether developer and downtown business owner Luke Vander Bleek can tear down two of the four houses on land he wants to develop in the 500 block of East Lincolnway.

Commission members and the City Council already have denied Vander Bleek’s request to withdraw from the city’s Lincolnway Historic District.

The agenda for this meeting and minutes from past meetings are available at City Hall.

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