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. ••