Stay order blocks demo permit for First Lutheran bell tower

In 2020, the city's building department said the tower could eventually collapse
church bell tower.PNG
Posted at 6:29 PM, Feb 28, 2022

CINCINNATI — First Lutheran Church’s legal battle to demolish its hazardous bell tower has been met with its latest obstacle in an effort to safeguard and re-enter its church home dating back to 2020.

A Hamilton County judge enacted a stay order blocking the city from giving First Lutheran demolition permits for the tower. The stay order was requested by OTR Adopt, the preservation organization trying to keep the historic tower intact.

First Lutheran said it was expecting to pick up the demolition permits late Monday after the city said on Feb. 25 it would give the church the permits.

“Based on the timing of the responses of the city saying it would issue the permits today was, we believe, was motivated and connected to our efforts to put pressure on City Hall to do just that,” said Pastor Brian Ferguson of First Lutheran.

OTR Adopt filed an emergency stay order over proceedings regarding the bell tower after it was informed by the city it would be issuing the demolition permits, according to First Lutheran. The day before, on Feb. 24, OTR Adopt said the city asked for the preservation organization to enter a second mediation with the city and First Lutheran to find a solution for the tower.

First Lutheran and OTR Adopt have agreed to the mediation that is expected to occur later this week; a prior, unsuccessful mediation between the city and First Lutheran with OTR Adopt occurred last month. The failure of that initial mediation prompted OTR Adopt to file an appeal on a December lawsuit against the city that initially tried to stop it from allowing the tower to be demolished.

“We are pleased with the results of the hearing this morning because it gives time for us to get together with the church and do mediation,” said Danny Klingler, the director of OTR Adopt.

Throughout the litigation, Klingler has refuted First Lutheran’s argument that it would cost approximately $3.5 million to restore the tower, a cost the church says it can’t afford. Klingler says his organization has pledges from community members and stakeholders that would account for the cost of making the necessary repairs to the tower as prescribed by OTR Adopt’s engineering firm, Julie Cromwell & Associates LLC.

“We’re just looking for a win-win,” Klingler continued. “We want the church to stay here. It costs about $400,000 to repair the bell tower and make it as safe as City Hall or Music Hall.”

Pastor Ferguson, however, said the prolonged legal battle has become a burdensome expense that is undermining the church’s financial future and stability.

The city, First Lutheran and OTR Adopt are scheduled to return to court on March 22 for a hearing on another, previous stay order on the bell tower filed by OTR Adopt.

The city previously said it could not issue a demolition permit for First Lutheran until OTR Adopt’s appeal was decided on. The appeal is still outstanding. WCPO asked what accounted for the city’s decision to issue First Lutheran demolition permits that were ultimately struck down by Hamilton County.

“Generally speaking, the city doesn’t comment or talk about ongoing legal cases or legal strategy,” said Rocky Merz, the city's interim media representative. “The city has been working through with both OTR Adopt and the church to come up with solutions that meet everybody’s needs that’s legal, and provides the necessary protections for the building.”

Monique John covers gentrification for WCPO 9. She is part of our Report For America donor-supported journalism program. Read more about RFA here.

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