Fox Chase United Methodist Church remains a hot topic

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. ••

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