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Biermann House plans inch forward

August 7, 2018

Plans to turn a county-owned historic house over to a private developer are moving forward two months after a split Olmsted County board granted 60 days to approve an agreement.

Tom Canan, senior assistant Olmsted County attorney, said a short-term agreement has been reached with developer Joe Powers to allow access to the historic Biermann House property to stabilize the house at 3730 Mayowood Road SW.

Powers said he’s fine with the agreement, but is eager to take the next steps.

“I’m trying to expedite the whole thing,” he said.

While he’s confident the house is salvagable, he said another year without a new roof could be detrimental. Additionally, he said work must be done to ensure water stays out of the basement.

“Most of the issues created on the property are just water issues,” he said.

However, Powers said he’s reluctant to sink more money into the project until he’s sure he’ll receive the final OK for turning the historic home into a rental property.

Canan said a final agreement for the sale will require additional work, which could take a year or more.

Since the property was purchased in 1979 using state and federal grants, the county is obligated to replace it with land of equal value for new recreational purposes. That means finding options that total an estimated $300,000 to convert to parkland.

The county is seeking a consultant to guide it through the process as it considers three to five county-owned or tax-forfeited properties that could be made into parkland.

Powers has pledged up to $50,000 to help fund the consultant and has hired his own experts to help the process, noting time is a key factor in attempting to save the house.

One critic of the county board’s decision points to the potential delay, and related cost, as a reason county officials should have selected the option supported by county staff.

Steve Williams of Rochester’s Blue Planet Museum Consulting said a proposal to turn the property over to Rochester would have bypassed any costs or delays associated with the requirement to convert other land to park use.

“It actually would have saved the county money if they would have gone with Park and Rec,” he said.

Rochester Park and Recreation’s proposal included funding from a private benefactor to renovate the house and eventually turn it into an interpretative center in connection to nearly 80 acres of adjacent parkland.

Mark Hindermann of Pine Island, who had been the unnamed benefactor during the selection process, recently said his goal was save the property and honor history. He said he was willing to provide a bond to ensure the work was done, even if it topped the county’s $500,000 estimated cost.

The county board, however, split 4-3 on the issue, after staff and several commissioners cited concerns with uncertainties in the applications submitted by Powers and the city.

“Both proposals left out many of the details needed for projected future use and overall both proposals lacked a lot of details,” Olmsted County Park Superintendent Karlin Ziegler told board members on June 5, citing staff support of the city’s plan because it lacked the need to find new parkland.

During the meeting, commissioners asked to speak to representatives about lingering questions, but only heard from Powers, who offered some updates to his proposal and committed to see the project through.

Rochester Park and Forestry Division Head Mike Nigbur, however, didn’t attend the county board meeting since a public pitch wasn’t part of the request for proposals. He said he could have attended the meeting if asked.

While the Rochester City Council typically only takes public comment on specific agenda items during public hearings, Olmsted County commissioners have been known to solicit comments from the audience on various topics not considered public hearings.

The Biermann House proposal was one such project.

Williams has cited the lack of additional city input in his repeated calls for reviewing the county decision.

“As it happens, because Mike Nigbur was not able to be present, the scales were weighed in the favor of Mr. Powers,” he said in an email to County Administrator Heidi Welsch and other staff members.

Canan said anyone involved in the process could have attended the meeting and spoken to represent the proposal they supported.

Williams has stressed he supports Powers’ plan to rescue the building from potential demolition, but he still questions whether it’s the best public purpose for the house, which is an issue commissioners who supported the city proposal raised during the June meeting.

Powers said local preservationists don’t need to worry about the Biermann House, as long as the process goes through as planned. He said he has every intention to preserve the property and work with the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office to make sure its historic value remains in place.

While Canan said the planned agreement doesn’t specifically prevent demolition or sale of the property, he said protections exist in its status on the National Register of Historic Places.

Additionally, Powers noted the cost of renovation needed to save the property would rule out most attempts to make short-term profits.

However, Williams said he remains cautious, even after offering Powers his company’s services.

“It’s a win for preservation, but a loss for the community,” he said.

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