County's petition to rescind special designation rejected; future of the property unknown

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The historic Moor Mud Baths/Grand View Resort, once used as Waukesha County's Health and Human Services center, will remain standing.

Waukesha's Administrative Review Board Tuesday, Feb. 14, ruled in favor of the city in a longstanding dispute between local and county officials on whether to tear down the 100-year-old Mud Baths. The county wants to use the land as a parking lot, but preservationists in the city have repeatedly called for the building to be saved and repurposed.

Standing in the county's way was the landmark designation assigned to the building by the city's landmarks commission. That designation was assigned to the building – which is on both the national and state register of historic places – in 2001.

RELATED: Panel to determine future of Mud Baths building

The county, which owns the building, filed a petition last summer to rescind the landmark designation, but the commission rejected it. The county appealed that decision to the review board, apparently to no avail.

The Feb. 14 decision comes about two months after the review board began hearing testimony from both parties in the case. The city and county then submitted written findings-of-fact documents that the board also reviewed before issuing its decision.

Although the review board's ruling can be viewed as a victory for preservationists, the county can still appeal the decision in Waukesha County Circuit Court.

No 'good faith'

In its decision, the board concluded that county officials did not make "good faith" efforts to sell the property – a city requirement for property owners that request the rescission of a landmark designation – when they marketed the building, for preservation as a historic structure, to developers in 2014 and 2015.

"The county did make reasonable attempts in good faith to find and attract a buyer," the board said in its written decision.

A deal was made more unlikely by "first requiring lease terms so onerous that they would dissuade reasonable lessees from making an offer; then commissioning an appraisal that intentionally ignored obvious matters that affect the property's fair market value; (and) then offering the property for sale with terms so confusing and contradictory – especially with respect to parking and access – that prospective buyers would be strongly disinclined to make an offer."

A ripple of applause broke out among onlookers after the board announced its ruling.

Mary Emery, president of the Waukesha Preservation Alliance, said shortly after the meeting that she was "very happy" with the decision.

Future unknown

Allison Bussler, the county's director of public works who filed for the rescission petition, declined to offer any personal thoughts on the matter during a brief phone interview.

"Our corporation counsel is reviewing that decision," she said. "No decision has been made at this time" about the future of the property or whether the county will appeal the review board's decision in circuit court.

The county could alternatively make additional attempts to sell the building and file another rescission petition.

In its 2016 budget, the county board had included money – around $3.3 million – for demolition of the building, Bussler said, adding that she would not speculate about what the board might do in the future.

County officials' primary concern for maintaining the building is its cost.

Bussler has said the building has significant structural deficiencies, corrosion and asbestos, and the cost to update the air handling units, electrical and plumbing infrastructures and interior finishes totals more than $24 million.

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