Monday, June 22, 2009

Holy Ghost Church - Slave cemetery, church threats and land ownership disputes in Phoenixville


Late this afternoon I received confirmation. Phoenixville Borough Council's agenda will include an Planning Commission item to schedule a conditional use hearing for the Holy Ghost Church property development.

The meeting is at Phoenixville Borough Hall, Tuesday June 22, 2009, at 7 p.m.

At the time of this posting Council's Tuesday meeting agenda does not include an agenda item for a vote on a Holy Ghost Church conditional use hearing.

I will update the blog when or if a vote is announced.

In probably the best piece I have seen on the situation, Evan Brandt, Pottstown Mercury reporter, examines the June Planning Commission meeting on the Holy Ghost property in the following article.


Slave cemetery, church threats and land ownership disputes in Phoenixville

Monday, June 22, 2009

By Evan Brandt,

PHOENIXVILLE — What do a controversial senior housing project, a “station” on the Underground Railroad, “threats of ex-communication” and a land dispute between a church and an enigmatic religious brotherhood have in common?

Why, the Phoenixville Planning Commission, of course.

At least that’s where those issues played out most recently as a proposal to build an 81-unit senior housing project, funded by the federal Housing and Urban Development agency, moved one step closer to approval, but only despite the evident reluctance of the planners.

The project is located on property at the northeastern gateway to the borough at Starr and Bridge streets and once housed the Reeves mansion, the family that owned the borough’s namesake industry, Phoenix Steel.

More than once, planning commission Chairwoman Debra Johnston said, “We love the project, we hate the location.”

“It’s a tough spot to be in,” said member David Sanock. “We’ve been put in the position that we have to recommend at the gateway to the borough a HUD project, which is what it is, dress it up as you may.”

The planners had little room to maneuver thanks to a 4-2 vote by Borough Council in October that effectively changed the zoning on the land, allowing the project as a conditional use.

Underground Railroad?

The planners, still apparently stinging from the council’s rebuke of their recommendation against that zoning change, were left to wrestle with a number of concerns attached to the project, not all of them specifically related to planning.

One was raised by resident Karen Johns.

At the June 11 planning commission meeting, Johns read aloud a letter she said Nilgun Anadolu Okur, a professor with Temple University’s African American Studies department, sent to the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission. The letter reported that the project site is home to a “station” on the Underground Railroad, the unofficial name given to the network of safe-houses used by abolitionists to help runaway slaves escape in the time preceding the Civil War.

The tunnels are nearly 2,000 feet in length and were used to hide runaway slaves headed for freedom in the north, Okur wrote. She also wrote that the site may also host African-American grave sites that could be disturbed by construction.

Mark C. Clemm, a Plymouth Meeting attorney representing the developer, produced a letter from that same state agency saying it had no information to indicate the site was of historic significance.

Johns said Okur also wrote that she had been contacted by members of Holy Ghost Church opposed to the sale of the land but afraid to speak out “because they are being bullied or threatened with ex-communication.”

Clemm said the matters raised by Okur’s letter “are based on triple hearsay by people who have a vested interest in slowing this project down. It’s all rumor. You have nothing verifiable.”

Discussions like this represent a few of the issues that made the planning commission reluctant to attach their names to a controversial project by way of voting for a recommendation. Their reluctance is evident in the fact that only three members of the planning commission — Teena Peters, Jennifer Faggioli and Sanock — voted to recommend the project’s land development plan to council.

Johnston was joined by members Marcia Eldred and George Martynick in abstaining.

Ownership Question

The Rev. James Evans, the seventh member of the planning commission, did not vote and, in fact, left the meeting before the vote was taken. That’s because, as the managing director of St. Peter’s Housing Development Corp., the project’s developer, he recused himself from participating in the planning commission’s deliberation.

At the June 9 Borough Council meeting, Starr Street resident Barry Chendorain said the council should remove Evans from the planning commission because of this conflict of interest, but council President Henry Wagner informed him that such an action is not within the council’s authority.

Wagner said if Chendorain had a complaint, he should direct it to the state board of ethics.

Faggioli informed the council that Evans “has recused himself every time” the matter of the project, officially called St. Peter’s Housing at Holy Ghost Church, has come before the planners. But in terms of conflict, being a developer who also sits on the planning commission may be the least of those in which Evans finds himself involved.

Dominating the discussion at the planning commission June 11 were questions about the ownership of the property on which this project is planned.

Evans produced and distributed a copy of an agreement of sale “with the recorded owner,” St. Nicholas Brotherhood, which he said gives his agency rights to the property until Dec. 31, 2010. However, the validity of the brotherhood with which Evans’ agency has an agreement has been called into question by a number of sources, as well as a court order — all of which were cited by Eldred when she tried to raise the issue of ownership, but was cut off by Johnston.

“Why are we voting on something when we don’t know who owns the land?” Eldred asked.

“Who owns it is not our problem, that is for the council to deal with,” Johnston said.

“I spent a whole day reading this legal stuff and trust me, I’ve got the gist,” Eldred said of the ownership question.

“There is a cloud over your project, regarding who clearly owns it, and some court will eventually finalize it,” said Sanock.

Peters said,as a taxpayer, she wanted to do everything she could to ensure the borough does not get dragged into any lawsuit that may grow out of the dispute.

“This is not within your purview,” said Clemm. “You can review the configuration of the building, whether you think it’s designed well and whether you think it’s appropriate for the site.”

Borough Manager E. Jean Krack told Eldred, “You could do this until the sun comes up tomorrow morning,” suggesting the matter move forward in the process.

Kimberly P. Venzie, the planning commission’s solicitor, said the proper venue for the ownership question is the conditional-use hearing which will be held before the Borough Council.

“It’s not within your power to question that now,” Venzie said. “This needs to move forward, no matter what you feel about the applicant’s status.”

Conditions Set

At the June 9 council meeting, Evans had asked Borough Council to advertise for a conditional-use hearing in anticipation of the planning commission’s June 11 meeting, but the council took no action.

As a result, the next opportunity for Borough Council to take the matter up will be at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 23, when it holds its next regular meeting at the borough hall on Church Street. The meeting is open to the public.

While the land development plan for the senior housing project only attracted three votes, all six voting members supported the recommendation for a conditional-use hearing, largely because it allowed them to attach conditions to “send a message to council.”

The message includes a set of five conditions, enumerated by Peters, attached to the recommendation on the conditional use that include: requiring a “historic audit” of the property; requiring facade approval by the Historic Architecture Review Board; the creation of a sidewalk or walkable condition along Bridge Street to link the property to the former railroad station, now a catering hall known as Columbia Station; and to consider moving the planned recreation area.

Perhaps the most significant condition on which the planning commission agreed was that “ownership of the property be established to council’s satisfaction before approval be granted.”

“Logic tells me I have to pass this to get any kind of message to council at all,” Eldred said.

Martynick, in an effort to be sure that message is sent, then proposed a second recommendation that questions of ownership be “reviewed” by Borough Council prior to holding the conditional-use hearing in that the planning commission had received “conflicting information” on the subject at its April 9 and June 11 meetings.

Peters, who with Johnston cast one of the two votes against this motion, warned that a recent court ruling “does not establish who St. Nicholas Brotherhood is and it will probably have to be litigated before it is finally decided. It’s going to be ‘he said/she said’ unless someone goes back to court, and we are powerless to do anything more than recognize this reality.”

Krack warned that such an action by council could set them up as a litigant in future lawsuits, a warning supported by Venzie.

“You can make this recommendation to council, but they will probably not be advised to go that route,” she said.

With Faggioli abstaining, Martynick’s motion passed with the support of Eldred and Sanock.


Anonymous said...

Well the positive side of this project, if it succeeds:

The decision makers and leadership of the church will not need to hire assistmant ministers or continue soliciting teachers as know one will be aware the church is there and those who still attend regulary, will probably falter even more then the 45 that attend now! So sad.

Anonymous said...

The Mercury article AND the photos of the proposed high rise were excellant and frightening. However, the ACTUAL building shown does not reveal the fact that it actually is only one side of the large "L" that goes along the railroad tracks, nor does it show the extended Church St. entrance. Or the parking lot that will will be paved up to the church doors and eliminate the existing mature trees. Perhaps if the public and neighbors saw what actually is planned for the entrance to their town, they might come out and voice their opposition to what their elected officials have allowed Evans to pursue. And do they really believe the final result will look anything like the drawing? Wrong!! It will look exactly like the prison facade across Starr St. Remember the architect drawings of that building when it was proposed more than 20 years ago? What happened to the trees and bushes planned in the islands of that parking lot? The apathy of the neighbors, save for one or two dedicated souls, has allowed this project to continue. More's the pity!!

Karen said...

Phoenixville Borough Council voted last night to schedule a conditional use hearing for July 28, 2009.

Anonymous said...

How can they do this?

None of the items were on the agenda in time for public to be aware this would be discussed.

How does an applicant (always the same applicant) manage to always put items on the agenda at the very last minute?