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Judge: Former Keokuk Church "Dangerous;" Orders Rehab or Demo

Jason Parrott
A judge has ruled the former Unitarian Church in Keokuk is a "dangerous" building that must be rehabilitated or demolished.

The future of the former Unitarian Church in Keokuk has been a topic of conversation for years. Will it be demolished or restored to its previous glory? A judge ruled Tuesday afternoon that whatever the future holds, a decision must be made soon given the condition of the building at 428 N. 4th St.

In his six-page ruling, Distric Associate Judge Gary Noneman wrote in response to Kekouk citing the church for multiple violations of city code in late April, “The court specifically finds, based upon the entire record taken as a whole, that the building itself, in its current state of disrepair and deterioration is in fact a ‘dangerous building.”

“The major problems of the building include large holes in the roof of the structure, fallen plaster in many parts of the interior of the structure, holes in the sanctuary floor, water in the basement areas, fallen bricks, and an assemblage of boards, debris, moldings and other parts of the structure that have fallen or which have otherwise been scattered throughout much of the structure. These conditions make the old Unitarian Church at 428 N. 4th Street a ‘dangerous building," wrote Noneman.

The building’s owner is listed as Christvision, a non-profit organization founded in 1992 and reorganized with new members in 2013. The organization was dissolved, though, by the Iowa Secretary of State’s office in 2015 after some paperwork was not filed.

Noneman wrote in his ruling, which can be read here, that no matter who is the owner, the condition of the building must be addressed.

“[Christvision] or any successor person or entity who assumes ownership of the property without approval of the City of Keokuk, shall abate all significant violations of the municipal code (those making the structure a dangerous building or presenting a hazard),” wrote Noneman.

Noneman said the minimum abatement includes:

  • Replace roof
  • Secure any portion of the church at serious risk of falling on the ground or sidewalk (based on opinion of city of Keokuk)
  • Remove/repair any hazardous condition within the structure that makes it unsafe to occupy (based on opinion of the city of Keokuk.

Noneman also ordered that the owner present a written plan and timeline for completing the work to the city for its approval before March 1, 2017.

“If no agreement between the parties with regard to a written plan for abatement and timeline for completion of abatement is reached by March 1, 2017 (or by any additional period of time mutually agreed by the parties), then the city may take any action needed to abate the conditions set forth above and may access up to $5,000 of cost of abatement to the defendant or its successor. Said abatement costs shall be taxed as costs and shall become a lien on the property,” wrote Noneman.

He wrote that if the former church is deeded to the city, that would meet the abatement obligations.

Noneman also took issue, in his ruling, with the fact that the situation got to this point.

“The historic Unitarian Church is an inspirational, important, and iconic Keokuk landmark which cannot be replaced if it is demolished. The real problem is that it cannot be either properly repaired or demolished without the infusion of a large amount of money, expertise and resources. It is vital for the parties to understand that finding the resources to deal with this deteriorating structure is not a legal issue, but rather is a social, business and political decision for the community and its leaders to make.”

Noneman went on to cite multiple instances where Christvision and the city could have worked together to save the church, but did not, specially noting the release of an engineering report on the building.

“It is clear from this report that if adequate action had been taken in 2011 (primarily the roof replacement to protect the interior of the building), the situation currently in existence would have been significantly mitigated. Over the past five years, however, the big issue – roof deterioration and its consequences – have taken a progressively severe toll on the structure,” said Noneman in his ruling. 

Jason Parrott is a former reporter at Tri States Public Radio.