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City Council rejects Mahanaim offer of church land gift

WILLMAR -- The Willmar City Council voted Monday night to reject an offer from Templo Mahanaim Assemblea de Dios of Willmar to donate the piece of land occupied by Mahanaim's condemned church building as a gift to the city.

The offer covered only the 75-foot-by-150-foot parcel occupied by the church building at 707 Litchfield Ave. S.W. and did not cover an adjacent similar-sized parcel owned by the church and used as a parking lot. Mahanaim said it is interested in continuing to sell the parking lot to help reduce its debt to mortgage holders.

City staff recommended the council reject the offer, but suggested that further consideration be given if both parcels are offered. If Mahanaim does not offer both lots, the city will continue with condemnation proceedings to have the building torn down, said City Administrator Michael Schmit.

Planning and Development Services Director Bruce Peterson said the parcels create somewhat of a zoning dilemma because neither one is an eligible, buildable parcel and does not meet the minimum lot size in the general business district. But he said both lots have been used as one property.

In a Nov. 19 letter, Mahanaim Pastor Hector Pinochet said he was authorized to put the gift offer in writing. Until a previous oral offer was made in writing, the city had said it would not halt the legal process to demolish the rundown church building.

Pinochet wrote that the congregation does not have the funds to comply with city orders to bring the property to usable conditions.

The council on Nov. 16 ordered Mahanaim to either make city-required safety and structural repairs to the deteriorating building within 30 days or have the building razed and removed if the owners choose not to make the repairs.

The church property has been for sale for a couple of years. Mahanaim bought the building from a local law firm in 2001 for $375,000. The law firm had operated the building as an office from 1980 to 1999. The building, constructed between March 1920 and May 1921, had been home to First Covenant Church. In October 1979, First Covenant moved to its present location on Willmar Avenue Southwest.

The vote to reject the offer was 7-0 with council member Doug Reese abstaining. Reese is a member of First Covenant and indicated he has some fond memories of the old church building. He said he understands the old building needs repair, but said it has some architecture and asked if costs of renovation and demolition have been compared.

Peterson said it was easier to formulate costs for demolition and removal of asbestos. He said no one in the private sector has made an offer to buy and rehab the building and make it cashflow.

Council member Tim Johnson said the building was not amenable to being rehabilitated. He said it's clear the cost of demolition will fall on the city. "The building has to come down,'' he said.

The city assessor has placed a combined value of the both lots at $112,500. Cost estimates for demolition approach $200,000.

Mayor Les Heitke asked Peterson if he was familiar with the church's financial condition and why the church was hesitant to donate both parcels.

Peterson said he was sure the church was trying to at least cover part of the debt that is owed to the mortgage holder, which is a church group in Oregon.

"They're trying to eliminate their liabilities and maximize their return on their assets and they're not willing to view it all as one property,'' he said.

If all debts on the parcels are released and the land is offered free and clear, the council can study the cost benefit of accepting the property, said Schmit.

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150