By Michael Howell
Phil Henderson, owner of Stevensville Hardware, filed suit in district court on June 13 against the Stevensville Playhouse, seeking a court order either forcing the non-profit organization to fix the wall of the building that is bowed out over his property or remove it. He claims the theater building is unsafe and represents a threat to his employees and customers as well as to the theater-going public. He claims it is also interfering in his plans for construction on his property.
A handout entitled “Why we are suing Stevensville Playhouse” was made available to customers at the hardware store last week attached to a copy of a letter dated November 21, 2013 from Beaudette Consulting Engineers to the Stevensville Playhouse concerning their building.
“You have a building that is used as a public meeting place, retaining significant numbers of people at a time, that is structurally deficient in life safety issues. These are not cosmetic issues. In the case of a seismic event, even a small to moderate seismic event, this building has a high probability of catastrophic failure,” wrote Steve Brackman of BCE Structural.
When Henderson first began designing a new addition on his property in the hardware store courtyard, he engaged BCE to help with the design. The engineering firm, with the permission of the Stevensville Playhouse, examined the theater building and determined that the bowed wall was not safe. The November 21, 2013 letter was written in response to a meeting of the Stevensville Playhouse Board of Trustees where they considered the engineering report but took no direct action in response.
About six months later, on April 16, 2014, the Stevensville Playhouse board received a letter from an attorney representing Henderson stating that apparently no steps had been taken and his client had not been notified of any steps being taken to remedy the issue.
“Because it appears you may not be fully understanding the ramifications of your decisions, I am going to be very blunt. Sticking your collective heads in the sand is not only dangerous, you are exposing the Stevensville Playhouse to potential liability. Under these circumstances, I believe you may also be potentially held personally liable for any damages,” wrote Reid Perkins of Worden Thane Attorneys at Law. He mentions that punitive damages could also be sought.
“I hereby demand that you immediately remove the entire encroachment and prevent any further encroachment,” wrote Reid, or, he says, he will advise his client to seek a court order.
The letter concludes, “If the Playhouse does not have the money to fix the wall, my client is willing to help by purchasing the property and demolishing the building. It will cost to demolish the building, so we will have to negotiate a fair price.” He stated the offer was only good till May 2, 2014.
That deadline came and went and the lawsuit was filed on June 13.
According to Susan McCauley, Chairman of the Playhouse Board, BCE did inform the Board about its concerns in the event of seismic activity last fall and offered several solutions at the time but none recognized the problem of encroachment.
McCauley said that the board’s research into the issue suggests that the bow in the top of the wall dates back to when it was poured in 1930 based on some accounts at the time. She said it was certainly bowed in a photograph from 1998 prior to Henderson’s purchase of the adjoining property. She said, bowed as it has been all these years, it has withstood several seismic events and there is no evidence of any damage.
McCauley said the board was still considering its options when it received the letter threatening to take them to court and even hold them individually liable. She said the board responded by proposing that they provide the engineering design and Henderson provide the materials for any necessary stabilization of the wall. But, according to McCauley, when they discussed it Henderson told them that the problem was he needed the eight inches of space so the encroachment would have to be removed, the wall would have to be taken out. “He told us a certain size footprint was necessary for the funding of the expansion project,” McCauley said.
McCauley said the flyer Henderson is circulating about why he’s filing the lawsuit contains inaccuracies and has the board worried that people will be scared away from coming to the theater. She said it could lead to lack of revenue and lack of volunteer help. She said he makes it sound like the wall is falling down, but there is no sign of any failure of the wall.
“It’s not leaning,” said McCauley. “It’s bowed at the top.”
She said the board was doing what it could.
“We asked how we could meet Mr. Henderson’s needs,” said McCauley. “We are not interested in hindering his plans. We have contacted three engineering firms. We are getting bids for construction. And we are looking for grants. We are working hard to resolve this, but we are an all-volunteer board.”
She said the board was trying to move forward with its annual theater productions and was preparing to make some usable space in the basement by transferring some stage materials to a large container that would be parked out back.
Last Friday, McCauley stopped by the newspaper office to say that the planned storage container could not be delivered. She said that Henderson had blocked access claiming that he owned a ten-foot stretch of property between the parking lot and the theater property.
McCauley said their response was to file a complaint with the Stevensville Police Department about having their access blocked. She had a copy of the complaint in her hand. She said Henderson intends on putting up a fence to block the entry.
Henderson, when contacted by the Star, said he didn’t care to comment on the ongoing litigation.