Fox Chase UMC violated zoning code with new school

The Fox Chase United Meth­od­ist Church vi­ol­ated the city’s zon­ing code by open­ing its doors to a private Chris­ti­an sec­ond­ary school last fall, ac­cord­ing to the lead­er of a neigh­bor­hood civic as­so­ci­ation.

Fox Chase Homeown­ers As­so­ci­ation Pres­id­ent Matt Braden said on Fri­day that the city’s De­part­ment of Li­censes and In­spec­tion has is­sued a zon­ing vi­ol­a­tion no­tice to the church. 

Speak­ing by tele­phone with the North­east Times, Braden said that L&I Deputy Com­mis­sion­er Mi­chael Fink had in­formed him of the vi­ol­a­tion.

The city re­cog­nizes the Fox Chase Homeown­ers As­so­ci­ation as the re­gistered com­munity or­gan­iz­a­tion for the neigh­bor­hood.

The Times left mes­sages for an L&I spokes­wo­man and for the church pas­tor on Monday seek­ing com­ment on the vi­ol­a­tion. Replies were pending as the Times went to press. City Coun­cil­man Bri­an O’Neill on Monday con­firmed that a vi­ol­a­tion no­tice was on its way to the church.

At the re­quest of neigh­bors, O’Neill had asked L&I to in­vest­ig­ate the church and school.

“This is what should have happened in the first place,” O’Neill told the Times. “The re­quire­ment, hope­fully, is that the church and the school meet with neigh­bors, tell them what they’re do­ing, what the con­di­tions are if (neigh­bors) agree to them and what’s the long-term plan. I think it’s go­ing the right route.”

Fox Chase United, at Fill­more and Lo­ney streets, has been at the cen­ter of con­tro­versy since Septem­ber when neigh­bors of the church first saw teen­agers at­tend­ing school there daily. The Times de­tailed the dis­agree­ment in an art­icle pub­lished in the news­pa­per’s Jan. 8 edi­tions.

Es­sen­tially, neigh­bors con­tend that they should have been no­ti­fied in ad­vance of the new school and that the stu­dents have caused sev­er­al qual­ity-of-life prob­lems for the area.

The school serves about 30 stu­dents in grades sev­en through 12. Sev­er­al fac­ulty and staff mem­bers work there. Ac­cord­ing to Braden, L&I will not force the church to evict the school im­me­di­ately be­cause its con­tin­ued op­er­a­tion does not pose an im­min­ent pub­lic safety threat. Also, the church may choose to ap­ply for a new use per­mit.

Neigh­bors first voiced their com­plaints pub­licly at the bi­monthly Homeown­ers As­so­ci­ation meet­ing on Sept. 11. At the next Homeown­ers As­so­ci­ation meet­ing on Nov. 13, a church board mem­ber at­temp­ted to ad­dress the on­go­ing com­plaints, al­though neigh­bors re­mained skep­tic­al of the leg­al­ity of the op­er­a­tion.

The Homeown­ers As­so­ci­ation met again on Jan. 8, when Braden and O’Neill aide Bill Ra­pone each an­nounced that the city planned to is­sue a zon­ing vi­ol­a­tion to the church. L&I of­fi­cials mailed the vi­ol­a­tion no­tice the fol­low­ing day, Braden said. Ac­cord­ing to the coun­cil­man and the civic group lead­er, L&I de­term­ined that the church vi­ol­ated the zon­ing code be­cause the school is a sep­ar­ate en­tity from the church.

By law, a church can op­er­ate a school as a mat­ter of right provid­ing that the size of the school does not ex­ceed the size of the church and that the school is not a sep­ar­ate en­tity from the church (that is, the church is not leas­ing space to the school). If either of those two con­di­tions are not met, the church must ap­ply for a per­mit to op­er­ate the school.

L&I may choose to grant a per­mit “over the counter” or to re­fuse the ap­plic­a­tion, at which point the church could ap­peal to the Zon­ing Board of Ad­just­ment for a vari­ance.

Pre­vi­ously, an L&I spokes­wo­man told the Times that the city was un­aware of the new school at Fox Chase United un­til re­ceiv­ing a com­plaint about it last fall. Act­ing on that com­plaint, city in­spect­ors vis­ited the site twice and were sat­is­fied that the church had met both con­di­tions to op­er­ate a school without a per­mit. Yet, at the ur­ging of the Homeown­ers As­so­ci­ation and O’Neill, L&I fur­ther in­vest­ig­ated the re­la­tion­ship between the church and the school.

It turns out that the two or­gan­iz­a­tions have sep­ar­ate pas­tors and sep­ar­ate boards and were foun­ded in­de­pend­ently from one an­oth­er. Gos­pel of Grace School was foun­ded in 1997. 

Fox Chase United is at least 118 years old. While the school does not pay the church to use its fa­cil­it­ies, the school holds a lease-to-pur­chase agree­ment with the church on a sep­ar­ate prop­erty that the church owns in nearby Chel­ten­ham Town­ship. 

Church Pas­tor Bon­nie Kar­en Mul­len-Holtz and school Pas­tor Charles M. Kel­ley pre­vi­ously told the Times that they have be­gun to es­tab­lish closer ties between the church and the school. Mul­len-Holtz serves on the school’s board while Kel­ley serves on the church’s board, they said. The in­sti­tu­tions have held mul­tiple com­bined re­li­gious ser­vices. ••

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