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House targeted for demolition is on historic list

A temporary fence surrounds the front of one of Mitchell's oldest houses, built in 1883, at 205 N. Duff St. in this Tuesday image. The owners of the house, Clarence and Lauretta Larsen, were told by the city to fence off the area after the house's porch collapsed in May. (Chris Mueller/Republic)

Before the city of Mitchell can demolish one of the city's oldest surviving homes, it needs to prove there are no realistic alternatives, City Attorney Carl Koch said Tuesday.

At a hearing Tuesday afternoon at the Davison County Public Safety Center in Mitchell, Koch explained that because the 130-year-old house -- which is located at 205 N. Duff St. and has been declared a nuisance by the city -- is listed with the National Register of Historic Places, state law requires the city to take specific steps before it can demolish the house.

The house, known as the Goodykuntz House, was built in about 1883, according to a 2005 report in The Daily Republic on the oldest buildings in Mitchell. That report was based on a study commissioned in the 1990s and makes the house one of the oldest buildings still standing in the city.

The house was damaged by fire in 2002 and was declared a public nuisance last October by the Mitchell City Council. The house is owned by Clarence and Lauretta Larsen, who appeared alongside their attorney Jim Taylor, of Mitchell, at Tuesday's hearing.

In a lawsuit filed Feb. 27, the city claims it notified the Larsens and told them to either restore the property to a non-nuisance condition or to remove the house entirely. The house violates a city ordinance against nuisances and is "unsafe, dilapidated on account of fire damage, with accumulations of materials and debris upon the property both inside and outside," the city's complaint says.

At Tuesday's hearing, Koch said the city was unaware the house was listed on the National Register when it filed the complaint.

In their response, the Larsens deny the city's allegations.

The Larsens said they have "undertaken a systematic approach to the restoration" of the house since a fire occurred. Documentation of the Larsens' restoration efforts is included in their response.

The house has historical and architectural value "far in excess" of its financial value, and that value "far exceeds any alleged unsightliness," the Larsens' response says.

According to South Dakota Codified Law 1-19A-11.1, before any governing body can begin a project that may "encroach upon, damage or destroy" any historic property, that governing body -- in this case, the city -- must find there is no reasonable alternative to demolishing the house. The governing body must then give 10 days notice via mail of its finding to the State Historic Preservation Office.

"We wanted to make sure the city complied with the code before the city went any further," Taylor said.

Koch said the city still plans to take the steps necessary to tear down the house.

"Our position is 10 years for a fire-damaged building is way past a reasonable time to restore it," he said in an interview with The Daily Republic after the hearing.

Both sides are working to arrange for city officials to inspect the inside of the property with an expert in chalkstone, the main material used to construct the house. Koch hopes to have the inspection completed within 15 days, but said during the hearing that, if necessary, the city could wait longer.

"We will be flexible in accommodating them," he said, "but we are going to get an inspection out of this process in the end."

A porch attached to the front of the house that collapsed late last month and left a large pile of debris has since been cleared away, but the front of the property remains taped off.

At Tuesday's hearing, Taylor asked if the Larsens now have permission to remove the plastic fence from the property now that the area has been cleaned. The city had ordered the fence to be erected.

"We don't want to compound what the city sees as a problem," Taylor said.

City Code Enforcement Officer Jeff Lanning, who also attended the hearing, agreed to inspect the outside of the property again to determine if the fence can be removed.