City officials will allow Pocatello High School renovation project opponent to speak at meeting

May 1, 2019

POCATELLO — The city’s Historic Preservation Commission has had a change of heart and will allow an alumnus of Pocatello High School an opportunity to speak on Wednesday at City Hall.

Pocatello High School graduate Steven McCurdy, who now lives in Utah, was twice denied by city officials an opportunity to voice opposition to the commission’s decision to grant Pocatello/Chubbuck School District 25 a certificate of appropriateness that will allow the district to make structural changes to the front of Pocatello High School. That work is set to start and be completed this summer and is the first phase of extensive renovations planned for the school.

The Historic Preservation Commission meetings McCurdy attempted to speak at were held in February and last month.

Pocatello Assistant Planner Terri Neu released via email on Monday a revised agenda for the commission meeting set for 6 p.m. Wednesday that includes an item for the commission to hear comments from “interested parties.”

Neu told the Journal on Tuesday that the agenda item was created specifically to allow McCurdy, and any other person who wishes to speak, an opportunity to voice concerns they have regarding the planned multimillion dollar renovation of Pocatello High School.

Neu said that McCurdy and others will have a total of five minutes to deliver any comments. This means that if McCurdy takes five minutes to speak nobody else will have an opportunity to address the commission regarding the project.

“The way they are handling this seems like it is in line with what other cities are doing,” McCurdy said about the revised agenda allowing him to speak. “This could resolve many of the issues but does not solve the underlying problem, which is that the process of issuing certificates of appropriateness for public entities should allow for public comment.”

Currently, Idaho statute and municipal codes do not require historic preservation commissions to hold public hearings when handling certificates of appropriateness. Though the business of such commissions is handled during a public meeting, which the state’s open meeting law requires, there is no requirement to involve a public comment period for or against the various actions a historic preservation commission in Idaho may take.

McCurdy said that because Pocatello High School is a public entity, in that it is controlled and operated by School District 25 and ultimately by the Idaho Board of Education, the public should have the ability to speak in favor or opposition of any proposed changes the Pocatello Historic Preservation Commission may approve regarding the high school.

“The way I see it, a school building is owned by all of us, at least it should be, and any changes to that building should be a representation of what the public wants,” McCurdy said. “To me, the public should have the ability to have input on this process.”

When asked what prompted the commission to reverse course and allow McCurdy to speak at Wednesday’s meeting, Neu said, “This was just a decision that (Historic Preservation Commission Chairman) Nick (Nielson) came up with. He decided to allow Mr. McCurdy to speak in the hopes of defraying this. (McCurdy) has blasted commission members individually on his (Save Pocatello High School) Facebook page and I think Nick is just tired of it.”

Furthermore, Neu said that if McCurdy would like the process involving certificates of appropriateness to change so that public comments are allowed, which would involve turning what are currently classified as public meetings into public hearings, he could do so by petitioning the Pocatello City Council to change its municipal codes on the matter.

However, doing so could come at a great cost and make the Pocatello Historic Preservation Commission’s process of issuing certificates of appropriateness one of the most stringent in the state, Neu said.

Neu said holding public hearings for certificates of appropriateness would add weeks to the process of acquiring such certificates from the city. Certificates of appropriateness are required for any renovations done on historic buildings such as Pocatello High School.

The city would also have to pay to run legal advertisements in local newspapers to let the public know about the hearings, creating a financial impact that currently doesn’t exist, Neu said.

“We will hear a huge backlash from downtown property owners because this will just gum up the process,” Neu said about requiring public hearings for certificates of appropriateness. “To be perfectly blunt, it could be the end of our downtown historic district.”

But McCurdy said he believes public hearings for certificates of appropriateness should be held because people need to be allowed to comment about such renovation projects. He said he will attempt to comment on future phases of the Pocatello High School project that come before the Historic Preservation Commission and he fears such attempts will again put him at odds with the commission.

McCurdy said he intends to speak at the commission’s meeting on Wednesday, adding that the contention involving himself and the Pocatello Historic Preservation Commission has resulted in at least 100 new supporters for his Save Pocatello High School online petition. The petition, aimed at persuading School District 25 to rethink its planned renovations for the high school, currently has over 2,000 signatures.

McCurdy has been fighting the renovation project because he believes School District 25’s planned changes to the school are not in line with its historic architecture. The oldest sections of the school were built in the 1890s.

Neu, Nielson and City Attorney Jared Johnson also plan to meet with McCurdy later in the week to discuss several questions McCurdy has raised about the renovation project and attempt to reconcile any misunderstandings.

“We want to give Mr. McCurdy a chance to speak and we want to meet with him one-on-one to address his questions face-to-face as opposed to communicating via email, “Neu said. “We just want to clear the air and get all his questions answered.”