BELDING — City Council members narrowly approved hiring a new attorney for the Belding Historic District Commission on Tuesday.
Council members voted 3-2 vote to appoint Thomas Forshee after a significant amount of debate.
His first order of business will be advising the commission on a demolition permit request from Electrolux for the historic Gibson Building and clock tower.
The commission had until Monday — 60 days after a demolition moratorium for the historic district expired — to act on Electrolux’s permit request. The company received a 60-day extension from Monday giving the city until March 1 to act on the request.
Belding City Manager Randy DeBruine said the city needs an attorney representing the Historic District Commission from outside the city and who isn’t involved in ongoing litigation between Belding and Electrolux to avoid any conflict of interest at upcoming commission hearings.
“It is important that Electrolux be given a full and fair opportunity to prepare and present evidence to the Historic District Commission,” DeBruine said.
DeBruine said City Attorney Gary Rentrop, who is representing the city in the Belding vs. Electrolux civil lawsuit, will be at the Historic District Commission meetings representing the city.
The next Historic District Commission meeting, which will include the first of three hearings for the Historic District Commission with Electrolux, is tentatively set for March 1.
DeBruine believes Electrolux will submit an application to demolish all structures on the site and the city will be putting in an application for demolition by neglect.
“A second hearing will be held no sooner than 15 days later where the Historic District Commission will hear testimony from Electrolux and the city,” he said. “The Historic District Commission will meet again three days later to make a decision.”
Forshee is an assistant city attorney for Grand Rapids and has experience working with the Grand Rapids Historic Preservation Commission.
“Mr. Forshee will need to be in attendance at the three meetings,” DeBruine said. “The cost for his services will be minimal and I recommend we appoint him.”
DeBruine estimated the minimal price of hiring Forshee to be anywhere from $0 to $100 per hour, with an estimate of about 15 to 20 hours of total work.
Councilman Joe Feuerstein shook his head at the mention of any cost incurred to the city.
“The minimal price you are talking about — about $2,000 in total for this attorney — may or may not be true,” he said. “When this whole thing with Electrolux and the historic district started we were given estimates. Now the city has spent more than $120,000 with another $60,000 on the way by July. I just can’t believe it.”
Councilman Mike Scheid was concerned about the council voting without having an official number showing the exact costs of hiring Forshee. Scheid wanted to wait until the next meeting to make a decision.
DeBruine said the matter could be decided later if necessary.
“If Electrolux asks the commission a question that seems unfair, then this new lawyer can step in where Rentrop could not, because Electrolux could argue he is being biased having been so involved on the matter,” DeBruine said. “His appointment as attorney for the Historic District Commission is for the upcoming Historic District Commission hearing, and nothing beyond that.”
Mayor Pro-Tem Andrea Belding said the city can’t afford to turn back now given the amount invested so far into the historic district and preserving the Gibson Building and clock tower.
“I think it is important to have someone there to represent (the commission) fairly,” Belding said.
“Rentrop cannot do that alone. We’ve been building up for this for a year and a half. If we were to bail out now, everything that we will have done to this point will have been done in vain.”
DeBruine said in the event the case moves to the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) for a hearing, the SHPO will conduct their own hearing and have their own hearing officer.
“Mr. Forshee would not be involved in that hearing, more than likely, at the SHPO level,” DeBruine said.
The City Council approved the motion with Scheid and Feuerstein opposed.