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Ohio Group Wants Bridge Preservation Plan Changed

Thu March 01, 2012 - Midwest Edition

STONELICK, Ohio (AP) For 134 years, a covered bridge has stood over the gurgling waters of Stonelick Creek in southwest Ohio. The one-lane, 140-ft. (42.6 m) long span is one of about 700 such bridges nationwide. Bicyclists, photographers and people taking country drives are drawn to its picturesque, wooded setting. One couple even bought a nearby house to be close to the bridge.

But while it’s always been pretty, the wooden Stonelick Covered Bridge started to show signs of age. When a recycling truck ignored the 3-ton weight limit and damaged floor beams 21 months ago, county officials were reminded of what they already knew: The bridge, listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1974, had to be fixed.

Nearby residents want it to be restored. The county engineer wants it to be preserved.

Those goals might sound similar, but they’re different.

In the 19th century, about 15,000 covered bridges dotted the U.S. landscape. Until about 25 years ago, the danger faced by such bridges was outright demolition. Today, the danger is “demolition through redesign,” said David Wright, president of the National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges, based in Westminster, Vt.

Which brings us to the preservation-versus-restoration debate surrounding the Stonelick bridge, one of about 140 covered bridges left in Ohio.

“This is history right here in our county, and it needs to be recognized and protected,” said Stonelick Township resident Eileen Kromer. “Anybody can build a modern bridge. Can you keep an old one? That’s the question.”

Kromer is among 500 people who signed a petition opposing a preservation plan proposed by the county engineer. The petition calls instead for an “authentic, historic restoration.” That effort has been led by Tim and Catherine Rush-Ossenbeck. While on a country drive on Stonelick Williams Corner Road 32 years ago, they crossed the red bridge and saw that a house on the south side of it was for sale. They bought it that day.

“We moved out here into [our] house because of the covered bridge,” said Tim Rush-Ossenbeck, an electrical engineer. But neither the Rush-Ossenbecks nor anyone else has been able to use the bridge since that May incident involving the recycling truck. Clermont County Engineer Patrick Manger said he closed the span after an inspection revealed a number of damaged floor beams.

Even before that incident, plans were being made to shore up the aging structure. In 2008, Manger’s office applied to the National Historic Covered Bridge Preservation Program and received a $360,000 federal grant, which requires a $90,000 local match.

Manger also hired a covered bridge consultant, John Smolen, who presented preservation options. After two public meetings, officials settled on a $1.1 million plan that involves constructing a new bridge inside the old one, which would preserve most of the old bridge. The new bridge — consisting of arches made of glued laminated timber — would support both the old bridge and vehicular traffic.

Those modifications, Manger said, would not jeopardize the bridge’s standing on the National Register of Historic Places. And even more important, in his view: The bridge’s load-carrying capacity would increase, with a posted limit of 12 tons. But Tim Rush-Ossenbeck and the pro-restoration group oppose that plan for a number of reasons. For one, the old bridge would no longer serve a functional purpose, but would simply be “window dressing.”

In addition, “When you drive over the bridge, you’ll see these big wooden arches [inside], but you won’t really see the old trusses,” Rush-Ossenbeck said. “You’ll have to look closely behind those arches to see the trusses.”

Trusses are what define the significance of a covered bridge, said David Simmons, president of the Ohio Historic Bridge Association. “So if you’re going to do a renovation, change as little as possible of the historic fabric that is most important, and that’s the trusses.” The Stonelick bridge features a Howe truss, a design patented by Massachusetts millwright William Howe in 1840.

Simmons said he believes the plan to install arches makes sense, because most of the old bridge will be left intact. But Ron Hill disagreed. He’s president of the Clermont County Historical Society, and helped get the bridge on the National Register. The arches will cause people to “get a very mistaken impression of what kind of bridge it was,” he said.

What’s more, Rush-Ossenbeck and others argue that increasing the bridge’s load-carrying capacity to 12 tons will lead to heavy truck traffic — and compromise safety on the bridge and the narrow country road leading to it.

Rush-Ossenbeck said he has been told by J.A. Barker Engineering, a Bloomington, Ind.-based firm that specializes in covered bridge restoration, that the span could be restored by simply replacing its worn out and damaged pieces. The cost would be about $400,000 less than Manger’s plan.

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