Trial date set in battle to preserve historic Kasson school

"The brick facade is beautiful on the outside, but it's lipstick on a pig because the inside, the structure itself, just isn't sustainable for a viable project for renovation," says Randy Lenth, city administrator for Kasson. (Ann Arbor Miller/File for MPRNews)

The fight to save a historic public school building in Kasson, Minn. will go to trial on January 6, 2014 in Olmsted County District Court.

Earlier this year, two residents filed a lawsuit against the city after officials revived plans to demolish the structure and build a new library. Both sides met last week but failed to reach a compromise, according to Kasson City Administrator Randy Lenth.

“No one ever really wants to go to trial, but I guess we have to,” Lenth said.

In September, an Olmsted County judge issued a restraining order that temporarily prevents the demolition of the 1918 public school building.

The order was a small victory for the two plaintiffs and some residents who believe the abandoned public school building should be protected under the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act, which protects historical resources.

“We feel like we are on very solid ground,” said Bruce Prescher, president the Kasson Alliance for Restoration, a local preservation group. “Somebody needs to determine whether the laws are applicable to this situation or not.”

The two plaintiffs aren’t affiliated with the Alliance, but Prescher says they share the same desire to preserve the historic building.

The complaint argues the historic school building, which has been vacant for nearly a decade, is too valuable to come down.

This summer, the State Fire Marshal’s Office assessed the building and determined its condition is unsafe and it needs to be demolished, according to Lenth, adding that a renovation could cost between $10 and $12 million.

In 2006, Kasson voters rejected a referendum to spend nearly $4 million to renovate the building. The city then moved to demolish it. Around the same time, members of the Kasson Alliance for Restoration placed the building on the National Register of Historic Places against the will of city officials.

City Administrator Lenth says this is the third lawsuit the city has faced to prevent the building’s demolition. As of September, Lenth said the lawsuits had cost the city about $75,000 in attorney fees and staff time.

Most of that is covered by insurance with the League of Minnesota Cities, but Lenth said the city will have to bear more of those costs now that the case is going to trial. “Going to court will be expensive as it always is,” he said.