The owner of a downtown Newton property heavily damaged by the derecho three years ago has reached a settlement with the city and agreed to hire a licensed company to demolish the building and restore the lot satisfactory to city code, effectively putting an end to a long and arduous litigation process.
Matthew Brick, the city’s attorney, informed council members of the settlement during their Oct. 2 meeting, saying the building must be dealt with as soon as humanly possible. To make sure the property owner follows through with the demo, the courts scheduled a hearing in February 2024.
“If they don’t have it done by then, they have to explain to the court why it’s not done,” Brick said. “And they can be found in contempt. In all likelihood, we’ll be done within 90 days, but it will certainly be done by—Well, I wouldn’t want to show back up and tell the judge in February that no we didn’t get it done.”
Realistically, the owner has until February to properly demolish the building. Council member Vicki Wade asked if weather would pose a problem and give the owner cause to delay the fixes even further. Brick, with the help of Newton’s building official, Mel Duncan, assured her it can be done despite the cold.
“They pull buildings down in Alaska. They can pull buildings down in Iowa in October, November, December. You know when they could have? They could have pulled the building down three effing years ago,” Brick said, prompting some chuckles from council members. “So, yeah, weather will not be a delay.”
Duncan added, “We build new buildings during the winter. So it’s a lot easier to tear them down in the winter.”
Still, the idea of tearing down the building — although needed — is making some uneasy. Jay Koenen, of Koenen Chiropractic, told council members during citizen participation that he worried about his clinic and the Knights of Columbus space being so close to the damaged building. The two buildings, he said, are adjoined.
“It’s really hard to kind of separate. So that inside wall on his property will probably become the outside wall of mine (and the Knights of Columbus),” Koenen said. “…Is that going to be weather tight? Or how are they going to do that? … My big concern is the foundation.”
The foundation, Koenen added, is limestone and sandstone.
“So if they go to backfill that, we’re kind of really concerned about that shoving our foundation in and then compromising our building.”
Council member Randy Ervin said it is nice to move forward with this issue, but he also shares many of the concerns raised by Koenen earlier in the meeting.
“Does this protect the buildings around them?” Ervin asked.
Brick said the agreement between the city and Chedester Properties requires the property owner to obtain a proper permit and follow all city codes to demolish the building. The owner is not allowed “to just pull down and walk away from the wall and leave it exposed” or “leave the adjoining walls susceptible to falling over.”
Council member Melissa Dalton asked Brick to explain why litigation has taken so long. Brick said everyone has the right to have their day in court, and the property owners wanted to fight the city’s lawsuit against them. The COVID-19 pandemic and the death of one of the defendants delayed the process further.
“And then — we’re not sure why — but all of a sudden last week when they called and made an offer, that was beyond anything we had tried to get from them at mediation,” Brick said. “The good news is this settlement offer they finally agreed to was beyond what we could get if we went to trial.”
For Brick, this case is an example of while sometimes it takes a little longer and “it’s not a lot of fun sticking to your guns” to not allow individuals “put their costs on the citizens of Newton,” it was well worth it in the end. By doing this and staying firm, Brick said council saved the citizens from paying a six-figure demo.
“The legal fees and the staff time, significantly less than the six figures that it would have cost to rip this building down,” Brick said.
The company that the property owners hire will work in conjunction with city staff to notify the neighbors who have concerns about it being taken down properly.
“No matter what, we’re going to have a hearing in February where we’ll show up and either say, ‘They did a good job’ or ‘They did a crap job’ or ‘They’re not done with it.’ So the judge wanted to make sure they stayed involved in this given the problems the city has had the past couple of years,” Brick said.
When the building is finally demolished, the city can accept the property at no charge and “do with it what it wants.”