An effort to build a $15 million library in Minneapolis' northern Webber Park neighborhood has resulted only in the headache of a defamation lawsuit against two Hennepin County commissioners.
The county obtained all the land needed to build the new library except one piece owned by Kevin and Valerie Holler at 45th and Humboldt Avenues N. The couple once had the house there on the market, but have not been willing to sell to the county despite numerous negotiations.
The initial plan was to build a new library for the north Minneapolis neighborhood just off Victory Memorial Parkway.
"It's time to get going on that," Commissioner Linda Higgins said recently, but added, "I don't have a plan yet."
No one else does, either.
Higgins wasn't on the board when the project's travails began. The Hollers' lawsuit targeted her predecessor, Mark Stenglein, now president of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, along with Board Chairman Mike Opat. Last month, a judge dismissed the suit for lack of merit.
Further clouding the question of motivation: The Hollers own a second house on nearby Washburn Avenue N. The home is lined with greenery, flowers and artfully placed pavers. The couple once claimed homestead status at the Washburn home, but in the past couple of years switched their homestead designation to the scruffier duplex.
Neither the Hollers nor their lawyer returned phone calls, nor did they answer the door at either of their houses or their business, Holler Glass Block. Their house, next to their business, sits on the site of the proposed new library. The couple's reasons for not selling remain unknown.
Anatomy of a dispute
In April 2008, the County Board decided to build a library to replace the Webber Park Library at 4310 Webber Pkwy. In June of that year, the Hollers received a letter telling them of the county's interest in acquiring their property at 1423 45th Av. N. According to the Hennepin County District Court ruling dismissing their lawsuit, the house had been on the market in 2007.
In the suit, the Hollers claimed that Stenglein defamed them. A news story at the time quoted him as saying that Valerie Holler had balloons, flags and "a 'For sale' sign, as big as the IDS building, in 2007. ... All of a sudden we want to buy the house and she takes the property off the market."
A story in the Camden Community News noted that the Hollers said they would only sell for $1 million to the county. The article went on to say the board didn't intend to pay more for the house than fair market value. (The current county record estimates market value at $275,000.)
In September 2012, the Hollers filed the lawsuit. But District Judge Denise Reilly said their claims were unfounded because the commissioners' statements were factual.
The judge found Opat's statement, that the Hollers only "actively opposed the sale of their rental property" after the board purchased surrounding parcels, to be true.
An uncertain future
It's unclear whether the county can find a new site or move to take the Hollers' property through eminent domain. "The library was meant to go on the parkway because we are spending so much money renovating the parkway. It would have been a great bookend," Stenglein said. "A premier library needs to be in a premier location."
The old library had been closed, but now has been reopened three days a week. The county voted last year to spend $500,000 for a small renovation at the old site at the same time the board voted to pull the proposed new library from the county's list of projects.
If the Hollers were to agree to sell, that could change.
"If we were able to buy that property, I'm confident we would have the votes for a new library," Opat said.
But Roberta Englund, executive director of the nearby Folwell Neighborhood Association, questioned the board's determination.
"If the intent to build the library were real, it would be standing there now," she said. But she also said there are two nearby libraries, so "it makes no sense whatsoever for the Hennepin County commissioners to resurrect the library" project.