Methodist church seeks new use for duplex

First United Methodist Church would like to use its duplex as a youth center and filed an appeal with the Greencastle Zoning Hearing Board after the zoning officer denied the request. The house sits on Madison Street, and the church, at the right, is on North Washington Street. The two are separated by an alley.

An appeal by First United Methodist Church was more than the Greencastle Zoning Hearing Board could digest, and a decision was postponed from the Jan. 14 meeting. Chairman Gregory Overcash, and members Gerald Pool and Michele Emmett continued the hearing to 7 p.m. Feb. 4.

"We need more information," said Overcash. "We're not comfortable making a decision today. This is something out of the ordinary."

The church, represented by attorney Ed Wine, disagreed with the denial of Greencastle Zoning Officer Kenneth Womack to allow a church-owned duplex to be converted into a youth center. Womack ruled that was an accessory use.

Wine argued the intended use of the house at 135/139 E. Madison St. was a permitted use, according to Greencastle's zoning ordinance for an R-2 district.

First United, 45 N. Washington St., purchased the property in 2003 and it is currently rented as two residences. Wine pointed out that the house was adjacent to the church, only separated from the parking lot by an alley.

"What the church wants to do makes sense for the community. The alley is the rub," he said.

Pastor Stacy Crawford testified that the congregation wanted to create a place of quiet for kids in the middle-to high school age group. It would allow for study, worship, counseling and music. Chaperones certified by the Safe Sanctuaries program would be present at a 1:5 ratio. A fulltime Family Ministries director, with a masters degree in counseling, would be available to talk to youth. In addition, other church members and staff had experience in counseling and could meet with families as well. No fees would be charged to people visiting the youth center.

Wine said appellate courts had found counseling to be an integral part of church activities, a public body couldn't definitively define what a church was, and the term should be viewed broadly to be of most benefit to the landowner with the least restrictive use.

Because Greencastle's ordinance did not define a church, Wine said First United should not be penalized due to fears other groups would come in and claim to be churches. The way around that was to state exactly what a church was in the ordinance.

Crawford supported the proposal. "We do not go into this lightly. Give us a chance. We'll try, in the godliest of ways, to make Greencastle proud of us."

Neighbors on Madison Street expressed concerns. Paul Myers, and Rodney and Sharon Oberholzer asked how the chaperones could be prepared for an unknown number of kids who might show up at any given time, how the church would control activity in the parking lot, and why it couldn't start the program in the sanctuary and branch to the other building later.

Second option

Wine asked that if the zoning board agreed with Womack's assessment, it then grant a variance. The church met the criteria for unnecessary hardship, including that the property contained a unique physical circumstance, specifically the alley; the problem was not created by the church; a variance would not alter the character of the neighborhood nor be detrimental, especially since First United was already surrounded by the police department, two other churches, borough hall, and a restaurant parking lot.

Greencastle's solicitor Jeffrey Evans agreed with Overcash that the case was different than previous appeals. "This is a 'use' variance and in the past they have been 'dimensional' requests, such as lot sizes."

After a half hour of deliberations, the panel said Evans needed to do more research on the legal issues. Though Pool disagreed with Wine's interpretation of case law, the solicitor reminded them the hearing board's only function was to interpret Greencastle's zoning ordinance.

Approximately 25 citizens attended the hearing, most affiliated with the church's youth ministry.