The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Fern Greenbank
LOG Editor 

Jesse Lee transfer may finally happen

 


The long-awaited transfer of historic property from the City of Seward to the Friends of Jesse Lee Home non-profit is scheduled to take place Monday night in the city council chambers. A deal at least five years in the making could, however, be delayed if the Historic Preservation Commission successfully inserts new language into the resolution.

John French, a member of the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) has submitted a “conditional opposition” letter to the city council. The commission recently met for a work session and one specific issue dominated their conversation. French, who said he can only speak for himself because the commission didn’t make a formal resolution during a work session, says the commission did not have time to schedule a regular meeting for voting and have a quorum before the special city council meeting. There are only four commissioners so all must be present to have a quorum.

French said he is concerned that nothing in the city’s resolution for land transfer requires the Friends of Jesse Lee to provide evidence of an historic consultation under Section 106 of the Historic Preservation Act.

“At this stage, it isn’t clear if the Friends of Jesse Lee are required to maintain the historical integrity of the building,” said French. “The resolution states there is an intent to do this, but not a requirement or condition of sale.”

French says if Friends of Jesse Lee provide a letter from the State Historic Preservation Office that all of the plans submitted so far and all of the consultation with the state office insure the building will remain historically intact, he would withdraw his objection to the current language.

“I have brought this up before,” said French, “and it wasn’t received well.”

President of the board for the non-profit Friends of Jesse Lee, Dorene Lorenz, said French’s request is inappropriate.

“We have worked hand in hand with Judith Bittner in the State Historic Preservation Office,” said Lorenz, who will be present at the council meeting Monday night. “I deeply appreciate that the commissioners want to make sure the building is not changed dramatically, but I think they misunderstand the process.”

Lorenz said the non-profit is in compliance with all regulations and standards.

“I don’t think John French, or the commissioners, have ever done one of these projects, so maybe they are just not educated about the procedure,” said Lorenz.

Lorenz said all of these issues have been discussed and hashed out before and she’s surprised at the last minute changes French has suggested.

“I don’t feel it’s my job to tell the state officer how to do her job,” said Lorenz. “I’m not going to call her up and say ‘here, you need to do this.’ She knows what a Section 106 requires and she is our contact at the state.”

Lorenz said the non-profit doesn’t do anything without the blessing of the National Park Service, the agency that oversees projects on the National Register of Historic Places.

For example, she said, a door was necessary to comply with current fire code but adding a door would change the exterior of the building. The NPS requires a “reasonable” explanation for the change, then makes a decision. In this case, the door was approved.

French said there is concern that the building is already too degraded to salvage it in a truly historic way and if that is the case, then the property can be used for the planned Balto Charter School with a building that is not historically preserved. Then, French said, the city would have handed off a valuable piece of property in the name of preservation at a dramatically lower price than it would bring if sold to a developer.

To that concern, Lorenz said the goal of the Jesse Lee Home non-profit is to rehabilitate the orphanage building, not create a charter school.

“That has always been our goal,” said Lorenz. “We aren’t in the business of starting schools, but that allows us to get funding to make sure the building and its history is saved and used for a good purpose.”

Ron Long, assistant city manager, said he will most likely recommend to the city council not to accept the new language proposed because the city needs to get that property off its table.

“We’ve absorbed a lot of losses with this property,” said Long. “It’s time to get on with the transfer.”

Long said the property is not of value to the city because it has an identified asbestos problems that are expensive to fix and possibly other contaminants under the structure. A non-profit trying to save an historic structure is better equipped to get funding for the expensive clean up, he said.

The home, once an orphanage to hundreds of Alaskan children rendered homeless due to epidemics and then devastated by the 1964 earthquake, has been through the hands of several developers over the years with little progress made in restoration.

The Friends of Jesse Lee non-profit was formed to take on the project with the intent to build a charter school, called the Balto School, that will specialize in leadership development of Alaska Native students.

 

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