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Holding on to home

Mike McConnell, who didn't want a photographer to picture his face in this story, has been living off-and-on in his severely fire-damaged St. Paul park home. City building inspectors have deemed the house uninhabitable; Monday the St. Paul Park City Council will discuss beginning a process that could demolish the house.

This story is the first in a two-part series. See the Dec. 30 issue of the Bulletin for Part II.

Outside a low-slung house on Summit Avenue in St. Paul Park on a recent Friday, the thermometer tells the story of a frigid December day: zero degrees. At noon.

Inside the home that was gutted by a devastating April fire, burly Mike McConnell stands by a wood-burning stove and stokes the flames with stacks of newspaper kept nearby. It's warmer -- but still not toasty.

"Thirty degrees inside," he says, reading from a digital thermometer and dressed in an unconventional winter outfit: heavy coat, winter hat and shorts, with woolen socks and rubber sandals. "Perfect."

McConnell has, at least sporadically, continued living in the home that has no gas or electricity after it was deemed uninhabitable by St. Paul Park building inspectors.

That has drawn complaints from neighbors, who say they're concerned the house could catch fire again, and from the city's contracted building inspector, who deemed the structure unfit for human occupancy, calling it "unsafe for use and dangerous for human life."

McConnell? He still calls it home.

Since 1964, the 68-year-old St. Paul Park native has lived at 1318 Summit Ave. And, despite the lack of heat or lights, he wants to keep it that way.

Soon, McConnell might have no choice. Citing safety concerns, St. Paul Park officials have begun taking steps to raze the house.

"Basically, the property owner takes care of the repairs, or the city files a motion in court to demolish the building," said Kevin Walsh, St. Paul Park city administrator.

McConnell insists he'll fix the house up, but says he's not moving too quickly at the job. He spent part of a recent afternoon pulling flame-blackened wooden framing from a row of boarded up windows while talking with a visitor, stepping over broken glass and debris left by the fire that St. Paul public safety officials say was sparked by his wood burning stove.

Signs of April's fire are everywhere: the ceiling in the living room is gone, exposing charred beams that support a damaged roof; the floor and walls are blackened; a warped, melted television sits where it did the morning of the fire. There's a lot of fixing up to be done.

"I ain't got much money, though," he said. "I'm retired."

'Take care of the human being in there'

On another December afternoon, McConnell gave a tour of the house while heavy smoke from the wood burning stove hung low over the interior, choking off daylight flooding in from a sliding glass door.

No family to stay with, McConnell said; his mother, father and siblings "are all in the cemetery over there." Asked where he sleeps at night, he gave a West St. Paul address.

But his car was impounded, he said, making trips longer than the walk to the gas station or Franke's Bar on Broadway Avenue difficult.

Next-door neighbor Terry Kuchenmeister said in an interview that he believes McConnell is living at the house. St. Paul Park officials also expressed their suspicions.

In his three-and-a-half years of living next door to McConnell, Kuchenmeister, 50, has complained to city officials about routine issues with his neighbor's home, like unmowed grass or offensive smells coming from the residence.

Now, Kuchenmeister said, with winter settled in, he's worried about his neighbor's well being.

The city, he said, has been "passing the buck," and should already have demolished the house. Walsh said the city needed a more specific report from the building inspector in order to begin court proceedings to raze the house.

"I'm not just a neighbor complaining about someone being in the place," Kuchenmeister said. "I want them to take care of the human being in there."

Both the city and Washington County have tried, said St. Paul Park Police Chief Mike Monahan.

St. Paul Park Police Department reports detail the dozens of times in 2009 alone that the city's police officers have been dispatched to the Summit Avenue home and the times that Washington County Community Services has become involved.

The reports paint a picture of a police department and county social services reaching out to help McConnell, including social workers from the county's adult mental health department. But the reports, too, show an independent man unwilling to accept their assistance and determined to remain in his badly damaged house.

"There's only so much that we can do," said Monahan, "only so much that (Washington County) can do."

Now, with his home of more than 40 years likely to be razed, it's unclear who can help Mike McConnell.