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A Farmington business owner has won a monthslong battle with a city commission to use stucco to repair her historic — and brick-faced — building.

The City Council last week unanimously voted to overrule the Farmington Heritage Preservation Commission’s (HPC) decision to deny Pam Heikkila the certificate she needed to reface part of the Fletcher Building’s crumbling exterior with stucco, which she said would save her tens of thousands of dollars.

“We were not giving enough consideration to the economic impact to her and her business,” Council Member Joshua Hoyt said. “This is a major expense for a small business.”

Heikkila runs a photography business out of the Fletcher Building, a 143-year-old downtown structure that the city has designated as a Heritage Landmark. The two-story building, which Heikilla bought in 2004, is faced with Chaska brick painted white. “I fell in love with it,” she said.

The masonry began crumbling in recent years, so Heikkila sought bids to repair the brick. When estimates ranged from $129,000 to more than $300,000, she instead looked into covering two less-visible exterior walls with stucco for about $41,000. “Costwise, it’s night and day,” she said.

Her trouble began when she went before the HPC last fall to get a “certificate of appropriateness,” required for a city-issued building permit. After three months of discussion, the commission — made up of Planning Commission members — unanimously denied her the certificate. City staffers seconded the denial.

“I would not recommend stucco in any shape or form,” said John Franceschelli, a commission member, adding that stucco captures moisture, which can seep through and damage the wood frame. He suggested Heikkila apply for grants to fund repairs.

The HPC partly based its denial on a letter from Robert Vogel, a principal with Pathfinder Cultural Resource Management of Spring Grove, Minn., who has advised the commission for years. Vogel said that Chaska brick — a soft, porous building material produced for a century in the southwest metro — is a “distinguishing architectural feature” of the Fletcher Building and shouldn’t be altered.

Vogel judged the building’s major problem to be mortar joint deterioration. He recommended cleaning the walls, redoing the mortar, repairing or replacing the brick and repainting. He said he believes the fix would cost less than stucco, and that the brickwork bids Heikkila received likely overestimated the work required.

Heikkila appealed the commission’s decision, writing the City Council that she had no intention “of taking out an exorbitant loan to accomplish the high level of authentic restoration, as it would … likely put me out of business.” She said was surprised by the decision because companies apply stucco over brick all the time.

“All of a sudden I’m expected to do a huge donation to keep the history of Minnesota alive,” she said. “And it’s by force.”

Farmington has a total of 16 buildings designated historic at the local level; three of them also are on the National Register of Historic Places.

At Tuesday’s council meeting, Hoyt brought up federal preservation standards that he said mention economic feasibility as a consideration when weighing repairs to historic structures. Vogel said Hoyt was reading the wrong document and that considering economics in such decisions is exactly what preservation standards say you can’t do. “It’s one of the proverbial slippery slopes,” he said.

Heikkila said she was happy with the reversal. “Small businesses shouldn’t be penalized just because they have an old building,” she said.

Erin Adler • 612-673-1781