The owners of this building in Virginia City, Fred Zweifel and Niki Kline, marked the property with caution tape on March 26, launching an investigation into the situation by Mayor Justin Gatewood and Virginia City Town Council. (G. Hamill photo)

VC boardwalk to be blocked due to unsafe building

Tourists will need to take a detour when they walk down the historic Virginia City boardwalk this summer. Part of the boardwalk on the south side of Wallace Street will be blocked due to a potentially hazardous structure.

Virginia City Town Council discussed the Zweifel Building during its meeting last Thursday.

Mayor Justin Gatewood said building owners Fred Zweifel and Niki Kline unexpectedly marked the building with a large amount of caution tape on March 26, and he immediately contacted the owners to inquire about the reason. The building owners informed the mayor they had received an engineering report stating the building is structurally unsafe, and provided a copy of the report to Gatewood on March 28. Gatewood provided copies of the report to council members the following day.

"It's a pretty dire report," said the mayor. "It cited the deterioration of load-bearing exterior walls, mainly the north and the west walls. The north goes on the boardwalk; the west goes onto the sidewalk on Van Buren."

Gatewood contacted the author of the report, Scott Curry, of Cut Bank, who told the mayor he visited the site and completed the report in June of last year. The engineer informed the mayor the building likely had suffered more damage from enduring a winter since the report was written 10 months ago.

The mayor met with the State Building Inspector on April 2, who told him deterioration of an existing building is not within his office's area of responsibility. Gatewood also consulted with the State Fire Marshal, who declined to take action because there is no imminent fire risk posed by the building.

The mayor consulted with the Montana Department of Transportation regarding the danger to the MDT right-of-way on Wallace Street and the requirements for safety barricades and marking. "People are not going to be able to go on that boardwalk," said Gatewood. "It's our duty to protect public safety and welfare. So, people are not going to be on that boardwalk for the immediate future. Most likely, there is going to be fencing or barricades out on the highway shoulder, that keeps people far enough away from the north wall, so if it does fall, they would not be in harm's way."

Gatewood said council must act to resolve the problem to alleviate disruption to the town's business district. "If we don't do something about this - this is our identity as a town - what are we all doing here?" he said.

Gatewood cited Chapter 8, section 7-8-1, of the town ordinances, which includes a finding that historically significant structures must be maintained. "There's language in our book that says if you have a building of historical integrity and it's of historical importance, that it is the responsibility of that property owner to maintain that building," he said.

The mayor asked Historic Preservation Officer Jim Jarvis for advice on how to proceed. "The first thing I'd say is these things take quite awhile to play out," said Jarvis. "This is not something that's going to get fixed in the next three to six months. It will probably be something that plays out over the next two years. Honestly, it's going to take some pretty serious money invested in that building to deal with these deferred maintenance issues identified by the engineer. My sense is that Fred and Niki are not prepared to invest that kind of money to save the building. So, it's going to take some time, even for them to sell the building to somebody who does have the resources."

Jarvis recommended the use of detour barricades that would have the least visual impact to downtown Virginia City. The HPO noted Curry's report recommended a full structural analysis on the building. "That would entail somebody actually looking at the building and figuring out how it's built and what's going wrong with it and what it would take to fix it. That hasn't been done yet."

Councilmember Jon Osborn supported getting more information on the building's condition. "I have some knowledge of this building," he said. "I think it's imperative that we get some secondary or third opinions on this. There's some issues with the building, but in my opinion, it's not as dire as the caution tape appearing all of a sudden a few weeks ago. Especially with the knowledge that Fred's been sitting on this for eight or nine months and didn't do anything until three weeks ago and it's the sky is falling and it's the end of the world."

Gatewood said the town could become liable if it accepted an engineering report stating the building is not a danger, while disregarding the initial engineering report. "Then, Fred and Niki are going to say,'you're assuming liability,'" he said. "Then we're embroiled even further in this and at the end of the day, the building really hasn't been fixed."

The mayor noted, in previous, similar situations, MDT had issue an encroachment permit, good for six months, when a structurally unsound building effectively encroached on a state right-of-way. The mayor suggested the town take the same approach with the encroachment on Van Buren Street. "If they do that, I think it would be in the best interest of the town to follow suit on the west side and see where we are in six months," he said. "Protect the people, first and foremost," he said. "At least get some type of time horizon that they should be planning and dealing with this and go from there. And continue to exert pressure."

Councilmember Amy Grice said council should deal with other potentially unsafe buildings in the same manner as it proceeds with the Zweifel Building.

The mayor said council will consider barricade options for both the Zweifel Building and the Dudley Building during its May meeting, after receiving more information from MDT.

In other business, council:

• Approved sign permits for Elling House, Rank's Mercantile, Tea & Scandal and Calamity Janes.

• Approved a development permit for Nacho Mama's to build a set of steps in the backyard of the business.

• Declined to act on a setback variance request from Ruth Hauri and informed Hauri she must go through the formal variance process.

• Selected a dark copper color for bear-proof trash containers being provided at no cost by a wildlife conservation group People and Carnivores. The containers will replace trash barrels along the boardwalk.

• Discussed but took no action on a complaint about trailers in yards.












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