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Judge to decide future of Jesse Lee Home

Historical Jesse Lee Home in September 2020.
Historical Jesse Lee Home in September 2020.(Taylor Clark)
Published: Sep. 17, 2020 at 8:24 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - A judge has decided to extend a restraining order against the City of Seward on the Jesse Lee Home by ten days in a written order.

In the order the judge states, "Given this situation: uncommon issues, more than one hearing where evidence has been presented, and having determined that currently there is no prejudice to the parties if a very short time frame is established to extend the [temporary restraining order] this court will not rush to a decision”

Earlier in September, a judge put a restraining order on the City of Seward after the city began the abatement process of the historic Jesse Lee Home. On Thursday afternoon, the group trying to save the home, Friends of the Jesse Lee Home went to court looking to get more time.

Judge Lance Joanis of the Kenai Court heard about an hour of testimony, motions and other arguments on each side. He said due to how busy the court was, his ruling would come down sometime on Friday.

There’s been back and forth about the home for years. It’s had a couple of owners since it was abandoned after the 1964 earthquake, but it’s gone back to the city more than once.

The city council in July voted unanimously to tear the building down, but Friends presented the judge with a quitclaim deed signed in 2014 saying they were the owners. The restraining order put the contractors on pause after about four days of work, according to the city.

In Thursday’s hearing, Michael Baylous represented Friends and Sam Severin represented the city.

Baylous was first to speak. He began using a small amount of his time arguing that the city has not been unbiased and neutral to Friends since the group became the owners. He said the group was denied the opportunity to meet with Seward officials on multiple occasions to discuss the progress of the required renovations Friends became responsible for when they bought the building.

“The basis of this lawsuit is that the city stole the property through its police powers unlawfully,” he said, “Friends has most certainly asserted that it should have possession of the property.”

Seward’s lawyer, Severin, immediately called Dorene Lorenz as a witness. Lorenz is chairman of Friends of Jesse Lee Home, which she testified is a volunteer position that she never got paid for. Severin brought up multiple documents from the State of Alaska that discusses approximately $7 million in grant funding going to Friends, except about $4.7 million was revoked by the state for a number of inappropriate expenses, according to the documents.

Lorenz was asked about such expenses as purchasing an antique desk, resort and travel expenses, alcohol expenses, expenses associated with a film festival and even a charge for a bikini wax.

She responded by explaining that Friends wants to put a school in the restored Jesse Lee Home that would start up immediately after the building was done. The expenses she said were all associated with developing the school and its curriculum.

Lorenz testified that the $100 antique desk was for the school. She said it had to be an antique because it’s appropriate for the age of the building. The resort and travel were for sending the “education team” to residential schools in the state to learn from them. She said film festival expenses were a partnership between Friends and the Alaska Vocational and Technical Center for “workforce development” to teach students about the film industry.

The bikini wax was a one time expense that was also related to education development, according to Lorenz. She said it was for a science lesson they were working on with children from Anchorage and rural schools about the removal of fur from hide. A student apparently brought up how she removes leg hair with wax which led to its purchase.

“So the other kids from the villages said, ‘No you use a different process,’” she said. “So to practice this, to make sure it was going to work, among the supplies that were ordered that day — and this is just one line item in, like, half a dozen — so they could practice this lesson, make sure it was appropriate they ordered wax that you use to remove hair from legs.”

As for the alcohol, she said that came up on one dinner bill where a single margarita was not put onto a separate bill. The only other person called as a witness was Seward Community Development Director Jackie Wilde. She is also the project manager for the demolition.

First questioned by Severin, Wilde went over some conversations between her and the contractor. She said there is a possibility that the city will have to seek another request for proposal with the current situation.

If it gets delayed much longer she said there’s a possibility of spending $2 million just to make the building stable enough to remove hazardous materials.

Last week, Wilde told Alaska’s News Source reporters that the cost of labor and unused equipment on site amounts to almost $30,000 every day. When Baylous questioned her, he brought up a provision that allows the city to suspend the contract and not accumulate the costs.

“But you have not suspended the contract so you can avoid the expenses?” Baylous asked.

“No sir,” Wilde replied.

She mentioned that she is acting accordingly with what the city council instructed her was the best action. She said they were told to issue a stop-work order but not to suspend the contract.

This is a developing story. Check back here for the judges ruling.

correction: This article incorrectly referred to the Friends of the Jesse Lee Home as the FLJH. It has been corrected in this version.

Copyright 2020 KTUU. All rights reserved.

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