PAXTON — Advocates for the preservation of the 94-year-old PBL Eastlawn School building find it curious that the Paxton-Buckley-Loda school district has chosen to excavate just enough land around the to-be-torn-down structure to avoid having the project’s adverse impact on historic resources subject to review by a state agency.
Documents released by the district this week revealed that it reduced the scope of the excavation work this summer to 0.99 acres — just under the 1-acre threshold at which a permit from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency is required.
If no IEPA permit is required, the district will not need to consult the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) to evaluate ways to eliminate or minimize the project’s adverse effect on historic resources — a process that could stall demolition or even lead to an alternative outcome.
Landmarks Illinois, a nonprofit that advocates for the preservation of historic structures, joined a group of Paxton residents this spring in asking the district to postpone its demolition plans for the building at 341 E. Center St.
In doing so, Landmarks Illinois informed the district that it appeared — based on the original bid specifications for the project — that the land to be disturbed would exceed 1 acre, requiring a permit from the IEPA related to “stormwater discharges associated with construction site activities” and, subsequently, a review by the SHPO.
With the SHPO having determined in May that the building was eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, Frank Butterfield, director of Landmarks Illinois’ Springfield office, wrote in a letter to the district that “it is established that Eastlawn is a historic resource” and “demolition, as the indicated course of action by the school district, is clearly an adverse effect.”
In the weeks that followed, PBL Superintendent Cliff McClure and members of the school board declined to respond to Landmarks Illinois’ repeated inquiries about whether an IEPA permit would be obtained for the project.
Then came Wednesday, when McClure finally responded to a third letter from Landmarks Illinois. In an email, McClure provided two documents that the district’s demolition consultant submitted to the IEPA on the district’s behalf — a “courtesy letter” dated July 31 and a “plat of survey” of the Eastlawn property dated July 18.
The letter, written by Mike Ewald of Collinsville-based Environmental Consultants LLC, informed the IEPA that “while the overall East Lawn Elementary School property is just over one acre in area, the actual disturbed area that will be associated with the demolition is less than one acre,” meaning no permit is required.
“We have validated our determination through consultation with an Illinois licensed civil engineer and a property survey by an Illinois registered land surveyor,” wrote Ewald, who also provided the IEPA with a copy of the survey showing the overall site boundaries as well as the area to be disturbed by digging.
“Environmental Consultants LLC wishes to familiarize (the IEPA) with this project so that your office can efficiently and effectively vet any further claims that may be made in reference to this project,” Ewald added. “We as professional consultants, as well as the superintendent and board of education, have insisted all along that this project is being performed in accordance with the applicable rules and regulations. We intend to move forward and complete the project in accordance with the applicable rules and regulations.”
Upon receiving the documents from McClure, Landmarks Illinois’ Butterfield said he was “very surprised to see the project area altered to be one one-hundredth of an acre below the required threshold for a permit.” Butterfield noted that “this new area is reduced in size from the specifications in the project manual for demolition activities at Eastlawn, published in February.”
Those bid specifications contained a map of the project area, with notes indicating that a manhole and septic system on the property’s southwest side would be removed. The survey completed in July, however, indicates that no land is to be disturbed in that area.
IEPA spokesman Kim Biggs said in an email Thursday that the agency was “working to determine if a stormwater permit will be necessary for the project.” Biggs said that while the IEPA has received notice of the project, she said no stormwater permit application has been submitted.
Biggs said that following the completion of asbestos abatement, which has been ongoing since August, demolition is scheduled to begin in mid-November. Biggs said demolition is expected to be completed in “the first part of 2020.” The project had originally been scheduled for completion by Dec. 20.
In March, the school board accepted a joint bid of $1.15 million from Lee Farms Excavating and General Waste Services to complete the work.
It was not until after the demolition contract was awarded that a group of local residents began attending school board meetings to ask that the building — which was designed by Joseph W. Royer, a prominent early 20th century architect who has a historical district in Urbana devoted to him — instead be saved, sold and repurposed. After receiving no response, they quickly enlisted the assistance of Landmarks Illinois.
One of the residents advocating for the building’s preservation, Jolen Anya Minetz, told the school board Wednesday that she continued to be frustrated by the school district’s lack of response to the idea of postponing demolition and marketing the building for sale.
Minetz noted that the district made no attempts to market the building for sale in the three years that have passed since voters narrowly approved a ballot question authorizing the district to issue $31.45 million in building bonds for Eastlawn’s demolition and the construction of a two-story addition to Clara Peterson Elementary School, among other projects.
“There was never one opportunity for Eastlawn to be sold. Why?” Minetz asked the board, receiving no response.
McClure did not immediately return messages from the Ford County Record requesting comment on this story.