Three Men charged with arson

Three Men charged with arson The Pressbox owner appeals decision to demolish building By David Lias
Plain Talk The arrest last week of three men who allegedly are responsible for the fire that severely damaged The Pressbox in Vermillion apparently won't be the only court action involving the bar and grille located at 9 W. National St. Chad Gruenwaldt, managing member of a limited liability company that owns The Pressbox, has filed court documents seeking an appeal of a decision made by the Vermillion City Council earlier this year to demolish the fire-damaged structure.  It is alleged that Nathanial Thomas, 21, and Jeremy Broomfield, 20, both of Sioux Falls; and James Broomfield, 21, of Vermillion; are responsible for starting the fire that severely damaged The Pressbox during the early morning hours of Sept. 29, 2008. An investigation determined that the fire was deliberately set. The three men were arrested by Vermillion police Thursday, July 16. Each suspect has been charged with reckless burning or exploding. The charge is a Class 4 felony that carries a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment in the state penitentiary. In addition, a fine of $20,000 may be imposed. Fire damage to the building is estimated at $287,000. The business has remained closed since the fire. The three men's initial court appearance is scheduled for Aug. 4 in front of Circuit Court Judge Tami Bern. They were held in the Clay County Jail Thursday, and on Friday were released on bond. So far, no hearing date has been set in circuit court for the Gruenwaldt's appeal of the city council decision. "We have agreed that the judge can set a hearing date," said City Attorney Jim McCullough, "but we still haven't received word that it's been scheduled." The Vermillion City Council decided to go ahead with its original plans to demolish The Pressbox following a lengthy meeting with Gruenwaldt's attorney, Michael Stevens of Yankton. In documents filed in Clay County Circuit Court in early June, Stevens notes that Gruenwaldt seeks to overturn the April 20 decision by the Vermillion City Council, acting as a board of appeals, to deny him an extension of time to repair The Pressbox. In court papers, Stevens claims that the city didn't present any documentation, drawings, pictures or other evidence to support its decision. Stevens also notes he was not given an opportunity to cross examine Farrel Christensen, the city's building and zoning official. The court papers also state that Gruenwaldt was denied due process, and that the city was aware that Gruenwaldt had received financing, but was still refused an extension of time to repair the building. "The Respondent (city of Vermillion) has no valid basis under law to deny the appeal and deny the approval of a building permit, variance or conditional use permit. Gruenwaldt is seeking a restraining order against the city to stop its plans to demolish The Pressbox building. He is also seeking a writ of mandamus commanding the city to issue the needed permits, variances, conditional use and extension of time needed to repair the building. The pending court appeal is the latest go-round between the city and Gruenwaldt since the fire. Last October, Christensen declared that the structure was a dangerous building and ordered it demolished by Dec. 15, 2008. Gruenwaldt appealed Christensen's ruling before the city council, acting as a board of appeals, on both Dec. 1, 2008 and Jan. 19. After conducting public hearings on those two dates, the aldermen determined The Pressbox should either be demolished or repaired by Gruenwaldt. Gruenwaldt was required to secure all needed permits for the building's repair within 60 days of the council's ruling. That 60-day time period ended March 23. The city contends that in all cases where repairs are to be made to a damaged building, they must comply with the city's code for construction of new buildings, mandatory provisions of city ordinances, including zoning provisions, and international zoning code. If an owner fails to take out required permits or a permit becomes void, the city is authorized to demolish the structure at the owner's expense. On March 20, Gruenwaldt applied for an extension and a building permit to repair The Pressbox. After reviewing the application, city officials issued a written decision denying the extension and permit application. Christensen points to six deficiencies in Gruenwaldt's application that left him no choice but to deny the extension and the building permit. In a letter to Gruenwaldt, Christensen wrote that Gruenwaldt failed to provide the city two copies of plans showing dimensions and shape of the lot to be built upon; the exact sizes and location on the lot of buildings already existing, if any, the location and dimensions of the proposed building or alternation; the materials of which it is to be constructed; and the details and type of construction to be used. All of those details, according to Christensen, are required by city ordinance. Instead, Gruenwaldt included a list of costs of proposed repairs to the building totaling $90,000. Gruenwaldt also disputed the need to submit plans and conform to current zoning regulations. Gruenwaldt provided the city with a copy of a structural design report, a copy of a letter he received from First National Bank requiring "a full set of building plans" before financing will be approved, the Clay County assessor's office replacement cost and square footage information, and first and second floor layouts with dimensions. Christensen noted that it would be unlawful for him to issue a building permit without plans required by city ordinance. Christensen also stated that Gruenwaldt's insurance company notes that repairs are required in virtually every room of The Pressbox, which is more than 5,000 square feet in area. Gruenwaldt had argued that his renovation project is exempt from any plan's requirement because the rehabilitation of the building would not entail more than 4,000 square feet. Christensen also pointed out, in his letter to Gruenwaldt, that a set back issue had arisen regarding The Pressbox because of non-comforming use. To battle that claim, Gruenwaldt is disputing whether his business was damaged more than 50 percent of its replacement cost in order to try to retain non-comforming use status. Christensen notes that a factual determination has been made stating that the fire damage to The Pressbox exceeds 50 percent of replacement cost. He also stated that Gruenwaldt never provided him with cost figures to repair the building, forcing him to rely on county assessor and insurance company figures. Gruenwaldt's proposed project does not comply with zoning regulations, and Christensen stated that variance, conditional use permits or amendment proceedings do not provide needed relief of that status. The dangerous building appeals decision gave Gruenwaldt 60 days to obtain a building permit and begin work, and in turn included the minimum requirements described above. "You have not met these minimum board of appeals requirements in the dangerous building appeal decision," Christensen wrote to Gruenwaldt before the April hearing. Stevens noted last April that The Pressbox owner has had to deal with allegations that he may have started the fire. "Obviously, that didn't occur," Stevens told the city council at April's meeting. "We have spent many hours fighting with the insurance company, and they have now just recently paid the policy." Stevens noted that Gruenwaldt also has taken care of all of the debt owed on the premises, and has received financing to restore the building to its original condition. During the April 20 city council meeting, the aldermen agreed with Christensen's assessment, and decided that Gruenwaldt had failed to meet the requirements spelled out in city ordinances. That means Christensen's order, issued last October to have the building demolished, still stands as the city waits to hear more about the date for the pending court hearing when Gruenwaldt will appeal that decision. Attempts by the Plain Talk to reach Stevens for additional comment before presstime were unsuccessful.

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