I was taught in forestry school to analyze problems and opportunities by gathering all the data available and find a solution or make a decision after doing a rational analysis of the information and removing as much emotion as possible. Emotion can and often does cloud or confuse a sound analysis.
During my 33 year career, I was a line officer for 14 years and was able to put this training into practice many times, and in fact, I continuously improved my skills. One of the most frustrating aspects of my job was dealing with people that used emotion as their preferred method of reaching a conclusion and once they settled on a position no amount of factual data would change their mind. If the data did not support their position they would discount it or just ignore its existence and continue on with their emotion-based position.
You are probably asking why I am setting this stage with a look back at my experience — please be patient, as it is important to what I am experiencing now, here in Hamilton.
I am a member of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Community and have been a member of the Building Committee for over three years. The opinions I am expressing in this letter are mine and mine alone. No one on the Committee has seen this letter.
We started our analysis process with the condition of the present structure requiring a substantial investment of funds and having problems with adequate access for people with mobility issues. We analyzed two alternatives that were remodels, saving as much of the present building as possible, and not much was saved.
This analysis was being done for our parishioners and the Diocese of Helena as the Bishop is the decision-maker. It was not done for anyone outside the Catholic Community. Our parishioners told us we needed to develop an alternative that replaced the building with a new modern structure that looked just like the 122-year-old building. We proposed that to our architect and the result became the obvious choice of all 14 diverse Building Committee members.
I am simplifying a long and intense process that involved facts, figures and some well thought out projections. For example, the building was constructed 122 years ago for a membership of 50 families. It would seat a total of 260 people with 40 in the choir loft and 220 on the main floor. Remember, people were much smaller in those days.
Today we have an enrollment of 539 families and we have lost the use of the choir loft. This is basic math and it is one of many factors that lead us to our unanimous conclusion. I am only telling you all this to let you know that we reached a conclusion based on the sound principles of analytical decision making with little to no emotional interference.
I am sorry to say that our neighbors and a few others. including the State Historic Preservation Office in Helena, are not using sound principles of decision making but are allowing emotion to dictate their actions. I am very familiar with the behavior and it is quite evident.
For example, we held an evening meeting with a group of the folks opposing our project, and we explained in detail what we were facing and included a tour showing the signs of deterioration and access issues such as the bathroom. There was pretty much rejection of the facts and statements like—all you have to do is enlarge the bathroom and add new wide stairs to the choir loft and not alter the appearance of the building.
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They also thought we could convince the Bishop in Helena to ensure we did not have a shortage of priests. These are all classic behaviors of people driven by emotion. And the behaviors continue with efforts to change the parking formula from four people per vehicle to two per vehicle. This would have a disastrous effect on our project, which is intended, but would also raise havoc with all of the City.
For example: the following do not meet the requirement of on-site parking based on four per vehicle; the City Bedford Building, the County Court House and Annex, the Downtown Business Complex, the Western Montana Mental Health buildings, Hamilton Junior High, Bitterroot College, quite a few churches and banks—just to name a few.
Now having laid this groundwork of personal opinion, let's get to the meat of the issue, and that's the legal framework for our project.
When Congress passed the Historic Preservation Act they included a provision that the owner of a historic structure has the legal right to modify or replace the structure, period. The State of Montana is quite proud to be considered a strong private property rights state and it seems like every legislative session deals with more laws relating to private property rights. This means that our property rights begin and end at our property boundary as do the rights of all our neighbors and all property owners in Montana.
If we were proposing a nonconforming use, I could understand their concerns, but we are not doing that. It has been a church for 122 years, built when no one lived in the area, and it will continue to be a church for at least another 100 plus years. So, what is the issue?
My belief is they are so wrapped up in the historic nature of the building, they cannot or will not accept our needs for our future and they have no legal right to stop us, so they are going after the City Zoning Board of Adjustments for granting us variances.
Some have even made the outlandish suggestion that we move out of the neighborhood. That is like moving next to an airport and then complaining about the noise. The parking variance is their focus and they are more than willing to force us to demolish the old Parish Center, to build another parking lot, and to kick the MAPS program out, and it serves about 100 young people. This is more proof of the emotion-based behavior I described earlier.
So, readers of this letter, do you think a small selfish group should dictate the future of a much larger group when that large group is continuing the use of their property within their legal rights? There will be a hearing in the next couple of months convened by the City Zoning Board of Adjustments.
If you have any strongly held beliefs regarding private property rights you might want to follow the progress. Our goal is quite easy to understand, we want to replicate the existing building with one that meets our present and future needs, and sends a clear message that “All are Welcome in this Place.”
I hope I didn't bore you and thanks for reading this.
— Sonny LaSalle, Hamilton
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