A modest two-story farmhouse just off Hwy. 61 in Cottage Grove, its light-blue trim peeling and its porches sagging, is the unlikely focus of a fight over the future of historic preservation in Minnesota.

The 19th-century Hill-Gibson House, long protected on Cottage Grove's register of historic places, is on the verge of losing that status and could be demolished.

In December, city officials agreed to amend an ordinance so owners can remove properties from the city's historical register — a change believed to be the first of its kind in Minnesota. Once off the list, buildings can be knocked down, moved or modified.

State historic preservation advocates say the new rule circumvents state law and defeats the purpose of having a historical register.

Not only could it spell trouble for the Hill-Gibson House — now a bank-owned property sitting on land the city wants for senior housing — but preservationists say the precedent could create a domino effect, paving a route for Minnesota property owners or cities to rid themselves of historic sites they consider too expensive or hard to keep up.

"We actually wrote a letter to the city saying we have serious concerns about this," said Michael Koop, who works with local preservation programs at the Minnesota Historical Society.

"To have a property taken off of … the local designation list, there needs to be a cause. Just by having somebody say, 'I don't want it on this list anymore,' in our opinion, isn't justification."

Faced with objections from the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota, Cottage Grove's advisory committee on heritage preservation voted Feb. 9 to put off a decision on delisting the house until Wednesday's City Council meeting, in hopes that alternate plans for the house could be made.

The Preservation Alliance has found a possible buyer who is looking for a new location for the house, said Anne Ketz, the group's real estate coordinator.

Council members also will vote Wednesday on whether to allow relocation — which would cost the buyer a least $20,000 — or demolition.

The council likely will approve each of the options, said John Burbank, Cottage Grove's senior planner and historic preservation officer, to minimize future city involvement.

A problem property?

The Hill-Gibson House sits behind a Kohl's department store on a road leading to two new senior housing complexes. Its front porch, topped with two dormers, faces a grove of trees and Hwy. 61.

Hugh Gibson, a former owner of the house, said he "jumped at the chance" to list the house on the city's historical register in 1999. He believed the move would preserve the structure for generations and save it from drastic alterations or the wrecking ball.

"To me, it's a shame that these Cottage Grove city officials seem to just want to erase the past," he said.

Gibson put $50,000 into fixing up the duplex in the 1990s, he said, a time when people in Cottage Grove were "enthusiastic about historic preservation."

But after the house changed hands, it fell into foreclosure and Anchor Bank now owns it. The house has become a problem property in terms of code inspections, Burbank said. It is "in a state of active destruction," he said in a report, and there are other examples of the architectural style in town.

The bank has struggled to sell the house and supports whatever the city plans for it, said Catherine Higgins Whiteside, Anchor Bank's spokeswoman. Those plans include building senior housing on adjacent land as well as the site of the house, if it's available. Construction is slated to start this summer, Burbank said.

City officials said that amending the historical register ordinance was a logical move, simply providing a way to reverse the process of putting a property on the list.

Far-reaching effects

Burbank said it's been done before. The city took St. Matthew's Church off the list and moved it in 1994, although no one recorded how it was done.

"Almost everything you do on a property you can undo at a later date," said Herb Japs, chairman of Cottage Grove's historic preservation advisory committee. "It seemed appropriate to have some means of doing it, not that we want to encourage it."

Maintaining an old house can become a financial burden for owners, some of whom didn't choose to put their property on the list. Keeping up a historic home has to be a labor of love, Japs said, or it's not worth it.

"If you wind up with one of these properties and you've got no love, think of all that money," he said. "Now it's a financial disaster."

In 1985, Cottage Grove was just the fourth Minnesota city to become a certified local government to receive federal money for preservation. Forty-three Minnesota cities now are in the program.

Koop said in a January letter that Cottage Grove had broken state preservation rules by not letting state officials review the amendment before it passed. That means the city could be decertified and no longer eligible for federal grants.

Ordinarily, state law says a structure can be removed only if there was an error in placing it there or if the landmark has changed so much that its historical meaning is lost, Koop said. He isn't aware of another Minnesota city approving a similar amendment.

The effects may reach well beyond Cottage Grove.

"I think that there could be a ripple effect," said Erin Hanafin Berg, support services manager for the Minnesota Preservation Alliance. "When you have even one town that's whittling away at [state infrastructure] and weakening that, what does that do to the whole entire system?"

"The state," she added, "is watching Cottage Grove on this, frankly."