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Raze plans lead to resignation
Raze plans lead to resignation
By JOSEPH KOZIOL JR.
BURTON – The town “where history lives” is losing one of its most ardent preservationists following a decision to raze a former school building constructed in 1866.
Kurt Updegraff, a member of the village’s historic architectural review board, submitted a letter of resignation last week in the wake of a 3-2 vote Aug. 22 to allow the Burton Fire Department to demolish the historic building, which served as one of the state’s first high schools. He has served on the board for the past 1½ years.
Mr. Updegraff, who previously served as president of the Geauga County Historical Society, stated in a formal letter to the village that he has “decided to place a greater priority on both my professional and personal life and can no longer commit the time needed to serve.”
While his letter did not state in great detail his reasons for resigning, it was the vote that will cost the village one of its most important buildings that led to his decision, Mr. Updegraff said.
“I realized that the majority of the board does not share my view,” he wrote. “I viewed my role as preserving history.”
Mr. Updegraff said he believes that his view is shared by others in the village who take pride in its many historic buildings.
In 1974, the area around the square was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district. Mr. Updegraff called the designation a “significant national honor.”
Fourteen buildings, including the 1866 high school, were among the buildings listed on the national register. In keeping with that designation, the village applied for and became a certified local government.
Mr. Updegraff quoted the U.S. National Park Service on citing the importance of the becoming a certified local government. “The certified local government program is a preservation partnership between local, state and national governments focused on promoting historic preservation at the grassroots level,” it reads.
Certified local governments (CLGs), he said, become an “active partner in the Federal Historic Preservation program and the opportunities it provides.”
A historic preservation ordinance was passed by Village Council, creating the historic district review board, of which Mr. Updegraff said should have had as its goal promoting historic preservation.
“I believe that for a certified local government to allow the demolition of a national register building without exploring alternatives is totally contrary to the purposes of the CLG program and, frankly, unconscionable and an embarrassment to me as a board member,” he said.
Mr. Updegraff also was dismayed that no village officials turned out for the meeting for such an important decision. “No one from the village leadership attended the meeting to speak in support of exploring alternatives to demolition,” he said. “It appeared to me that not even village leadership agrees with my view.”
Mr. Updegraff said his decision to resign was not a reflection on other board members. “I want to stress that my fellow historic district review board members are dedicated people who make every effort to attend the meetings, some of which have been scheduled with only a day or two of lead time.
“They absolutely care about Burton Village, so I’m not criticizing them. I just don’t agree with how they see their role on the board.”
Mr. Updegraff was not satisfied with many of the reasons given by fire department officials for needing to raise the buildings and its plans following its destruction. He indicated that Fire Chief Michael Sestak could only say “we have ways” when asked how they would raise the estimated $2.3 million to build an addition on the site of the old high school and renovate the existing fire station next door.
Mr. Updegraff had proposed an alternative project north of the village that would have cost $1.2 million. He said Mr. Sestak refused to give up on the existing fire station site because of $25,000 it receives annually from its pancake breakfast fundraisers.
“By the chief’s own numbers, he is willing to pay an additional $1.1 million to net $25,000 a year, a payback of 44 years,” he said.
“That’s his opinion. Everyone is entitled to their opinion,” the fire chief said Tuesday about Mr. Updegraff’s latest comments. “If he had a good plan, we wouldn’t be tearing down the house.”
The fire department is a private company, Mr. Sestak said, and can do what it wants, just as a private homeowner can with its property, historic or not. He indicated that there are other historic buildings the village could lose.
Because of the building’s designation, the fire department cannot receive federal funding for any phase of its plans if the demolition proceeds. “The net result is that Burton will have given up a significant historic building for a parking lot that will park perhaps 14 cars,” he said.
Mr. Updegraff had proposed that the fire department sell its buildings in the village and turn them into tax-paying properties.
“In short, the demolition of the building makes no economic sense, whatsoever; not for Burton and not for the fire department,” he said. “The chief is being fiscally irresponsible, but then what would we expect from someone who, by the time the old school has been torn down, will have sunk well over $150,000 into it with the result being a tenth-of-an-acre, weed-infested, gravel parking lot.”
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