With spring on the horizon, students tend to get a bit antsy while looking forward to the end of the school year. In Fox Chase, patience is also wearing thin among residents who don’t like a church-based high school in the neighborhood.
Folks who live near the Fox Chase United Methodist Church made their objections known during the bi-monthly joint meeting of the Fox Chase Homeowners Association and Town Watch on March 12. They don’t think the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspection is acting fast enough to shut down the Gospel of Grace School from operating inside the church.
An unusually large crowd of about 100 attended the meeting, perhaps due in part to an anonymous flier distributed to neighbors in advance. The unsigned leaflet accused the church and school of disregarding a zoning violation notice issued by L&I to the church in January. Further, the flier stated that the city agency would allow the school to operate until September and maybe beyond, even without a permit.
But nothing could be further from the truth, according to Homeowners Association President Matt Braden and City Councilman Brian O’Neill, who said that L&I has initiated a process to close the school.
“I just ask that people respect the process,” Braden said. “As a registered community organization, that’s how (the Homeowners Association) has to operate. Let’s just exercise some patience.”
“I’m sure we’re not on our way to finding ourselves where we were last September,” O’Neill added.
At 118 years old, Fox Chase United is a staple of the community. But neighbors began noticing new activity on the corner of Loney and Fillmore streets in late August and early September. They soon discovered that the church had opened a secondary school for about 30 students. Neighbors complained about increased traffic, litter and other nuisances.
Under the city’s zoning code, churches are allowed to operate schools as a matter of right without zoning variances or certifications. But the Gospel of Grace School is not a church program. It is considered a separate entity that essentially rents the space at Fox Chase United. So a zoning permit is required. Fox Chase United does not have one. Neighbors complained at the September, November and January meetings of the Homeowners Association. O’Neill and the Association petitioned L&I to investigate the school. In the days after the January meeting, the city agency issued a violation notice.
However, the zoning code also allows property owners time to file an appeal, according to Braden. Initially, the church had 35 days to apply for a variance. It did not. Typically, L&I conducts two follow-up inspections, unless safety issues prompt an immediate shutdown, Braden said. The city agency inspected the site early this month and found no imminent safety threats. Another inspection is expected within weeks. In practical terms, the process allows L&I and the property owner time to resolve issues without resorting to costly and time-consuming litigation, Braden said. In this case, it could also allow the 30 teenagers to finish the school year without interrupting their education.
“We took the complaints; we took it to heart. And we’re holding them to task,” Braden said.
O’Neill expects the church and school to resolve the violation in time to plan for the start of classes next fall. If the church applies for a variance, it would have to present its case first to the Homeowners Association, then the city’s Zoning Board. Without a variance, the school would have to find a new location.
In other community news:
• O’Neill reported that plans are underway to install new lights at Fox Chase Recreation Center, which will illuminate soccer fields and the Fire Fighter Daniel Sweeney baseball field. The lights will allow youth sports programs to host night games for the first time in the program’s history.
• Separately, a rehabilitation project for a small playground on the grounds of Ryerss Mansion in Burholme Park has gone to bid, O’Neill said. The site is near Central and Shelmire avenues. The city completed a similar project recently at another small playground at Verree Road and Tustin Street.
• O’Neill further reported that American Heritage Federal Credit Union has removed two unsightly billboards from outside its 430 Rhawn St. branch. The Fox Chase Homeowners Association had asked the credit union last year to remove the billboards as part of the business’ installation of a new freestanding digital sign.
• Homeowners Association members unanimously approved an application by a local couple to build a covered patio and a storage shed onto their garage. The single home is on the 700 block of Chandler St. ••