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Historical society cuts hole in wall, and Medora is mad

August 5, 2018

This July 26, 2018 photo, provided by Derwin Zuroff, shows a second entrance that was cut into a stone wall surrounding a downtown park in the North Dakota tourist town of Medora. The project has caused a rift between the community and the State Historical Society, and could spark a city lawsuit against the state.( Derwin Zuroff via AP)

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A small hole in a wall has caused a big rift between a small North Dakota tourist town on the edge of a national park and state historic preservation officials.

The State Historical Society in April paid a contractor more than $66,000 to cut a 10-foot entrance in a sandstone wall around a quarter-acre public park in downtown Medora, just outside the entrance to Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the western North Dakota badlands.

The work was done at the request of the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes the community named for the wife of French nobleman Marquis de Mores, a larger-than-life businessman in the little town’s storied history. The wall built by Civilian Conservation Corps workers during the Great Depression with locally mined stone surrounds De Mores Memorial Park, which includes a bronze statue of him.

Foundation President Randy Hatzenbuhler said the project created a second entrance to the park and allows easier access for food and beverage carts serving events there. And he said the spot was chosen to be as unobtrusive as possible.

But dozens of residents think the opening in the wall damages the historical integrity of the park in the town built with a distinct Old West atmosphere. City officials say the State Historical Society didn’t notify them of the project and didn’t get a permit.

“This thing kind of happened right under our noses,” said Derwin Zuroff, who owns a gift shop with his wife. “It’s offensive to me that people we trust to take care of these parks for us and not allow these kinds of things to happen were the people behind it happening.”

In a town of barely more than 100 people, residents submitted a petition with 38 signatures to the Historical Society asking for the wall to be restored and for the agency to terminate its agreement with the local foundation to maintain the park. The city has notified the state of the zoning violation and also asked that the wall be restored. It is contemplating a lawsuit, Auditor Gary Ridenhower said.

Historical Society Director Claudia Berg said the state property is not subject to local zoning rules but acknowledged that “our mistake was not telling them about this project.”

“It was such a small project and such a win-win for everyone it never occurred to us anyone would be upset about this,” she said.

The entrance was created with aesthetics in mind, and all of the stone blocks and railing have been saved. However, Berg said the Historical Society has no plans to restore the wall.

“The park looks spectacular,” she said. “Part of the community’s response to this has really taken us by surprise.”

“This is destruction of an historic part of the park,” Zuroff said. “None of us want to end up in a lawsuit. We just want the wall put back up.”

The Historical Society caused further distrust with some town residents when it delayed a nomination of the park to the National Register of Historic Places. Some residents wonder if a National Register listing of the property with the second entrance would make it more difficult to restore the wall. Berg said that isn’t the case.

She also rejected accusations that her agency has been “devious” and said the society is “baffled” by the uproar.

Diane Rogness, who used to manage historic sites for the society and calls De Mores Memorial Park “a special place to me,” believes the dispute could harm relations between Medora and the Historical Society long-term. She called the project “appalling” and said the society is skirting its responsibility to the public.

“They did not consult or have any public meetings,” she said. “This is public property. While the State Historical Society manages it, they do not own it. It is owned by the state of North Dakota, and held in trust for the people of North Dakota.”

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