Thursday, July 30, 2009

Holy Ghost Church - St. Peter's Development hearing - "Poor preparation" drags out church housing project hearing

'Poor preparation' drags out church housing project hearing

Thursday, July 30, 2009

By Dennis J. Wright,

PHOENIXVILLE — Borough Council voted unanimously to continue the conditional-use hearing regarding St. Peter's Housing Development Corp. proposal due to, in council's terms "poor preparation."

The two-hour conditional-use hearing featured testimony by the applicant, Rev. James Evans, developer, St. Peter's Housing Development Corp., a recess, an executive session, no public comment, and a berating regarding missing exhibits.

At issue is the 1.9-acre parcel at Starr and Bridge streets, which Holy Ghost Orthodox Church wishes to sell to St. Peter's Housing Development Corp.; however, it isn't clear that the church owns the property. The property appears to be owned by the St. Nicholas Brotherhood, founded in 1938 to hold title to the property, and which was donated to the church by the Reeves family, majority holders of the former Phoenix Steel Co. The brotherhood leased the property to Holy Ghost Church for 99 years beginning in 1941.

A lawsuit regarding proper ownership was filed in Chester County Court on July 13.

Prior to the conditional-use hearing, borough solicitor Andrew D. Rau stated that the borough would take judicial notice over the dispute of the owner of the property. He asked that Scot R. Withers of Lamb McErlane P.C., West Chester, be known for the hearing as representing the Brotherhood.

Mark C. Clemm of Morris and Clemm P.C., Plymouth Meeting, representing St. Peter's Housing Development Corp., immediately objected.

Withers said that he represents the Brotherhood and is awaiting a decision from Judge Edward Griffith.

"We contend that they are not the property owner," Withers said.

Clemm asked the council to recognize Holy Ghost Church as a party to this hearing.

Rau replied that the council's role is zoning in this hearing, and that any approval should be presented via judicial notice with the proper ownership.

Clemm said that there is a lease between Holy Ghost Orthodox Church and St. Nicholas Brotherhood. He stated that there is a sublease between Holy Ghost Orthodox Church and St. Peter's Housing Development Corp.

"St. Peter's has standing to pursue this," he said. "Ultimately it doesn't matter about ownership. We can still seek conditional use."

Withers responded, "The basis of the agreement — the lease is valid between the Brotherhood and Holy Ghost."

Rau asked Clemm regarding the number of witnesses he would have testifying, to which Clemm said he would be presenting two of them. They are Reverend James Evans, developer, and Anthony Hibbeln, P.E., of Hibbeln Engineering Company, LLC.

Rau asked Clemm about Evans being a witness considering Evans' status as a member of the borough's planning commission.

"He took no part in any decisions regarding this as part of the planning commission," Clemm replied. "He has the right to be a developer."

Clemm began the hearing mentioning the various exhibits that council members were to look at. However, all of the exhibits that Clemm spoke of were not included in council's packets for the meeting.

Some of those exhibits include another agreement with Holy Ghost Orthodox Church and St. Peter's Housing Development Corp.; a sublease to allow St. Peter's Housing Development Corp. to lease land from Holy Ghost Orthodox Church; additional changes to the project plan; historical information and studies; and traffic information and studies..

Evans testified first, stating that St. Peter's is a non-profit housing organization.

"We provide housing under HUD for those who are 50 percent or below median level," Evans said. "We operate two facilities in Phoenixville and one in Delaware County. It is intended for senior citizens or people under the age of 62 in a wheelchair who are declared disabled by the Social Security Act.

Evans said that St. Peter's has been incorporated for 27 years, and one of his facilities, St. Peter's Village, will be celebrating its 25th anniversary in October. When asked about his familiarity with Phoenixville, Evans said that he has lived in the borough for 35 years and has been a member of the planning commission for two years.

Evans testified that he was approached by Norman Trudel regarding expanding St. Peter's Village to another site.

"He recommended the Holy Ghost land," he said. "It is an excellent site, and it would be in the best interest of the community. I participated in the design of this new facility. This is an important gateway to Phoenixville and its downtown."

When asked about the current entrance to the property, which is located along Starr Street, a few feet shy of Bridge Street, Evans said that a new entrance would be made along Starr Street, but lined up with Church Street.

Following Evans' testimony, Hibbeln was asked about his familiarity with Phoenixville.

"I've done 20 previous sites like this before," Hibbeln said. "I've visited the current site more than a dozen times. I'm quite familiar with project here in Phoenixville. This senior citizen project is in the best interest of the community."

During cross-examination, Withers asked Evans did he seek consent of the St. Nicholas Brotherhood, or if he went elsewhere, to which Evans responded, "As newspaper headlines have said, will the real St. Nicholas Brotherhood please stand up?"

Following another Clemm objection, Withers asked Evans again, and Evans answered, "I did not."

Withers asked Evans, "Is St. Nicholas Brotherhood a party to the sublease? and Evans answered, "I sought legal counsel as to who I needed to seek, and they said I had to enter in with Holy Ghost."

When it was brought up that the sublease agreement between Holy Ghost Orthodox Church and St. Peter's Housing Development Corp. had Tuesday's date on it, Evans responded, "It has existed but was finalized today. The application was filed months ago.

"The agreement of sale gives us options until the end of 2010," he continued to Withers. "Your suit holds that up."

Clemm told council, "We didn't want to illuminate the ownership issue due to this being in court. We feel the sublease agreement would allow us to move forward with the application."

Council president Henry Wagner told Clemm, "I believe council want to make a decision tonight. We would be abdicating our responsibility without our involvement."

Clemm answered, "Do whatever you feel is best without dealing with the ownership issue."

Withers asked Clemm which document was the basis for the application, and Clemm said, "I stipulate it was the agreement of sale."

Withers questioned Evans on the HUD funding, and the Historical Study, to which Evans testified that HUD funding and involvement were not an issue as they are not involved.

Wagner called for a five minute recess, which was then followed by a 15 minute executive session so council could review the sublease agreement.

Upon returning from executive session, Rau read a statement authorized by council regarding the ownership issue, "In light of the active litigation concerning ownership and control of the property, any approval, if issue, shall be subject to presentation of a final unappealed order of a court of competent jurisdiction establishing the applicant or applicant's rights vis-a-vis the property owners. If the conditional use and/or subdivision land development is approved, this shall be pre-conditioned to plan filing and issuance of permits."

In reply to the statement, Clemm said, "I understand council's position. I don't think a court of common pleas will say what the standing is," and then showed council the agreement of sale, dated June 2008.

Wagner then criticized Clemm for the lack of exhibits given to council and poor preparation.

"There were not enough documents provided for council," he said. "You were not prepared and didn't give us no new plans. I don't feel right making a decision."

Evans said that 21 copies were prepared for council, and said he believes the problem relied with borough hall staff.

"The next time we appear before you, we will provide you with plenty of copies," Clemm said, to which Wagner answered, "Please do so before we criticize borough staff."

In closing, Evans told council, "For us, conditional use doesn't matter if we own or lease."

Withers closed by saying, "We want council to look to see the issue of the sublease in this conditional use."

Wagner then asked for public comment on the issue, and when no one offered to speak, a surprised Wagner asked council members for their response.

Richard Mark Kirkner (D-North) made a motion, which was seconded by Kendrick Buckwalter (R-West), to continue the hearing until Aug. 11, to allow council time to review the missing exhibits.

Jeff Senley (R-North) said that he had reservations about taking action on the issue.

"There are exhibits missing and we only have half a plan," Senley said. "The (Phoenixville) Hospital's helipad proposal was well planned and presented properly. I could easily follow the entire proposal. There is nothing like that tonight. If I had to vote tonight, I'd say no."

Following a 7 - 0 vote, Rau said that the hearing would continue on Aug. 11, and there will be no further public notice.

"This is your public notice," he said. "We won't go through additional commentary on this. Council will deliberate and then take action."


Anonymous said...

I read a story in the Mercury a few years back about a man who leased a gas station from its rightful owners. The man sold the gas station to a third party, acting as though he was the owner. I think the man went to jail.

On what basis does an engineer say he thinks this project is in the best interest of our town? Stick to the facts of engineering and leave your opinions about what is best for Phoenixville to yourself.

I am guessing they were unprepared because they assumed it would be a slam-dunk? Can it be that everyone sees the reality of this mess but the 'developer', his lawyer friend and the board of HG? LOL. It is ironic too that the clergy who carried the big spiritual stick is now silent.

Anonymous said...

It is my direct experience as being a renter that you need written permission from the owner before embarking on modifications that can't be easily be put back to the original rental properties structure. When a friend built another room on his rented property, the landlord ripped it out before the lease was up. The room cost thousands to build. Also, a landlord can only be pushed so far by a tenant before they evict them. In this situation I see more than enough due cause for eviction. The current HGOC board members and Fedornock better start packin'.

Anonymous said...

The only chance this parish has
would be to demand the resignation
of the key offenders in this mess.

The ongoing spiritual harrassment, mailing back dues, mailing back vigil envelopes, threats on tape, attacks in parking lot MUST STOP!

We all share one bond, the love of this church!

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 11:42...
Yep, this is a spiritual matter. This church was built to worship Christ. All of this blather and trouble has nothing to do with God. The fact that two key players in this drama wear the garb of clergy makes it all the more a sad display. Wake up people.

Anonymous said...

The Saint Nicholas Brotherhood was not given the property by Reeves. They sold it to the brotherhood for somewhere in the range of $30,000 in that year.

It was a good price but not free! Also the West Chester Daily Local had a photo on Monday of a mansion owned by Reeves Family that still stands, but not the one that HG tore down in the mid 1970's. The site of the old Mansion which housed underground railroad access now has an outdoor shrine and pews for prayer services.

As for the Holy Ghost Church Members wanting to sell this land for the project. That is not a fair statement as out of 240 members at the time of the vote 2/3 did not attend nor vote for this project. There were less then 90 people at the meeting and it was not legally called in the majorities opinion. Most of the members have signed petitions being against the project or vocally expressed this but had intimidation cause them to back down.

Who in their right mind would sell the right of way, frontage and most valuable asset for $500,000.

By now they spent that on laywers fees. So Sad

Anonymous said...

Trustar did not initiate this project with Evans!

Anonymous said...

Mailing back your $$$ ?
What kind of a church IS this? LOL

Anonymous said...

72 years ago this month, our parents, grandparents and great greandparents, whom were uneducated immigrants walked across the way and celebrated their first Divine Liturgy after a horrible division in the parish.

All they wanted to do was preserve their faith and ensure that no person/man in a leadership role could take away their church.

These dedicated servants of God ensured that the new land they purchased was protected by documents put in place with legal coucil. They were not "dumb hunkies" as some would claim...

Fast Forward 58 years and the dream of the New Social Hall was implemented on the very same month when a bequeath was made...

Fast Forward another 8 years and another bequeath was made of an even more substantial nature, for this same vision and dream of the brotherhood.

I wonder what the angels looking down, will pray for this month? My guess would be that they will pray that the remaining people in control of their hard earned money, will not spend it on legal fees and plans for this bogus addition to the church that the new members call progress.

The plans the founders families had for a grand all would have taken this once prospering parish into the next 100 years. The plans were in place when St Basils began their project.

Today, they have expended all interest from this account that held over 680,000 as well as borrowed 80,000 for mtn on cottage, and anther 58,000 on legal that we know of....

This split of parish and spending of funds will ensure no hall will ever remain. To sell frontage and deadlock your church behind this apt bldg will destroy what you have left forever.

One could only hope the living donor to this fund demands an accounting and stops any more spending for personal illegal mistakes not in the best interest of the church.

Anonymous said...

The solution is this:

Send anyone who is not a Phillies or Eagles fan back to NY, NJ or Pittsburgh. Then the problem will be solved!

Anonymous said...

"Send anyone who is not a Phillies or Eagles fan back to NY, NJ or Pittsburgh. Then the problem will be solved!" that's funny !

Anonymous said...

I just watched the council meeting on PCTV. Wow. Many upsetting items:

1) Evans gets our entrance and corner which Penndot will then pay him for to make their new road.

2) Evans began working on this 6 months before joining planning commission. Interesting coincidence.

3)HG went to Trustar about this idea to get money for a new hall. Odd, they had money for a new hall.

4) Entire plan presented to church changed, moved back, ultimately void as THE NEW PLAN, LEASE, SUB-LEASE AND ASSOCAITED COSTS NEVER APPROVED BY CONGREGATION AS LEGALLY REQUIRED - regardless of ownership. Congregation voted on a specific motion, this hearing revealed 1) Not Hud funded 2) larger building 3) No carwash ever a possibility.



Anonymous said...

Great idea to have everyone from church watch the tape. Then what? This is a runaway board who is following their own agenda. Do YOU think they give a RAT'S A$$ about what the church voted on? THEY DO AS THEY SEE FIT. THEY SHOULD ALL BE REMOVED FOR LACK OF INTEGRITY AND ETHICS.
Then again, when the attorneys for AT&T are through, they may be cooling their heels somewhere else.

Anonymous said...

As someone previously stated, "follow the money". How much of the bequeathed money still remains. Have the Brotherhood ask the church board for a treasurer's report to inspect the building fund. My guess is most of the money was lost in the stock market and the board is just covering up the losses with selling/leasing the property.
Secondly, what are the terms and conditions of the "sub-lease".

Anonymous said...

The sub-lease was in final draft less the 24 hours before it was presented to council.

Do not think it is public record yet. They only presented to SNB and council the Jun 08 agreement of sale during Tuesday evening's hearing. This is hte Jun 08 agreement Samilenko signed as Pres of Church.

On tape it is apparent Clemm did not want to do this but he couldn't have it both ways. If the "sublease" could be legal, then the initial agreement had to be legal.

Samilenko will go down on this one and Bilanin walk away to GA with ATT issues behind Breno and Koss.

Anonymous said...

During meeting on PCTV I heard them talk about Phoenixville water and sewer easements that were put thru 13 years ago. I was on the board then and the town paid us well for this $7000 according to my minutes from HG church back then.

This money was to be used for a parking lot adjacent to the current social hall, behind the brick sign the removed for the work. The town paid this, we agreed, and the President at the time was Breno. In the minutes dated 1993 congregational meeting, he recorded that line was there.

Evans on tape acted as if his building had to be moved back due to this underground system.

Why didn't Evans and HG board believe those who mentioned this often at the informational meetings?

Why vote on a plan that they knew would be changed later?

Why was that parking lot never put in at HG with the money received for easement to town?

Where is that money???????????????

Anonymous said...

Father Evans said Tues on TV Ijust saw that all his project are HUD funded.

When Saint Nicholas attorney asked about this project, Father said it was not HUD funded.

When we voted on this project, vote was immediately needed because Evans said it was HUD funded.

When do we know what to believe. IF it is not HUD funded, how much will each unit cost to be considered affordable?

Anonymous said...

Follow the money....

I saw the plans and documentation they produced for this project, and someone has spent a lot (tens of thousands) for just the documentation. Add in lawyers at every meeting and engineering time and you are probably over $100k. This is a LOT of mpney to spend before any type of approval has been granted, unless you had a massive profit motive. A company who thinks they can make $10 million dollars will easily spend a couple hundred thousand to try to make it happen, given the fact that you have that kind of expendable money on hand.

Who is coming up with all this money ? Is it really possible this money is being spent to help elderly Phoenixville residents ?

Everyone thought HUD was funding this and we heard last week that the application to HUD has never even been submitted. Is it possible that this is a bait and switch, ie, say this is to help the elderly and then sell upscale apartments or condos at the gateway to the newest developing, young urban center. Wow, those apartments could be worth a LOT of money in a new hip neighborhood, let alone if that high-speed rail line to Philly ever comes through (walking distance).

Father Evans has a masters degree in urban planning according to his testimony last week. Does ANYONE think he has not considered all of this ?

I heard early on that the elderly of Holy Ghost were told they will get first consideration for an apartment. What a wonderful thought, living in walking distance to your parish home. Unforuantely, Fr Evans testified last week tha there are over 200 people on a waiting list. Will the folks already waiting for a spot be pushed back, or were the Holy Ghost people told something that was not true ?

Another question: with all respect to our elderly, why in the world would Phoenixville want elderly housing at the gateway to a thriving urban renewal zone ? What happens when all the expected night-life starts popping up and the folks who go out at 10pm start making it noisy for folks who are in bed by then ? Is there NO other piece of property on the other side of Phoenixville where this could be located ?

I have a suggestion for council (someone will have to pass it along though): Why not move this fabulous project over to another undeveloped section where you want to spur development. This project could become the anchor for a whoel new section of development. Why, I would even bet there is land that Fr Evans could get for free somewhere.

I don;t know Father Evans, but something struck me as very odd. A man with a collar sat giving public testimony, and when asked by the opposing attorney if he went to the Saint Nicholas Brotherhood for approval, he stammered and hesitated. He was asked the same question three or four times and he stammered and hesitated every time. Father Evans, did you forget ? What took you so long to answer yes or no ? It really looked like you either had somethign to hide or were purposely avoiding giving a truthful answer. Frankly, it really made me uncomfortable.

Follow the money. I think there is a lot more to this dtory than a reverend just trying to help some elderly....

Anonymous said...

A sad thing going on is many things disappear.

The lease dissappeared.
The parking lot funds from easement sale disappeared...

The original SNB bylaws that were in archive book Feb 2003.. gone!

The allocated funds for plaques for pews at shrine and in candleroom... Hmmmmmmmm never done/dissapeared

The rent from daycare deposted monthly to to Educational Bldg fund... as noted in Feb 1995 per Samilenko presentation. The daycare concept was to eliminate need for a baking group ongoing.

New china in rectory, brass kick plates in church... shovel from breaking ground on original bldg... gone or disappeared..

All of these pledges, promises forgotton, lost or mismanaged.

Anonymous said...

I watched this finally.

Before every answer, Father Evans looked to Clemm on how to answer.

Notice Clemm motioning his head and hands before answers. Notice Clemm interrupting Father Evans, when answers were not how they should have been for Clemm.

Who the heck does Clemm work in the best interest for? He attempted twice to add Holy Ghost as a part of the hearing/liable entity yet isn't it Holy Ghost who retained him intially through his contact with Richard J Phifer of HG? What in the world were the board of officers thinking - to allow their attorney to remain on along with him representing Evans.

Sounds to me as if the officers of Holy Ghost are putting the treasury, diocese and members into a huge liabilty issue. Not one of the elderly baking people should blame anyone but their own board for this mess and waste of funds.

If this mess does not go away it is because they ignored the lease and intentions of the foudning fathers. Shame on you all for not being honorable. THIS IS NOT PROGRESS. IT IS A TRAVESTY!

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that a certain Board is inept and an urban planner knew just how to play them, but that is just my opinion.

Anonymous said...

I've been watching this saga closely since it began;sure beats Summer re-runs on TV and one thing has me confused;Who is this Evans? One time he's a priest,then he's an urban planner,then he's retired and working on outreach for widows and orphans. Then he has HUD funding,then he doesn't but if I go way back to the first time this hit the papers,it has to be settled ASAP because he had to get the funding from HUD before May '08 and does he even care what he's done to that church by his business dealings? Whoever said "follow the money" was right on target.