Board denies request to demolish planing mill

HOLLIDAYSBURG — A majority of members of a board tasked with upholding the integrity of Hollidaysburg Borough’s historic district voted for a second time to deny a local church’s request to recommend demolition of a historical planing mill.

At Thursday’s Historical Architectural Review Board meeting, First United Methodist Church of Hollidaysburg officials petitioned board members to recommend the demolition of a former planing mill on the 800 block of Walnut Street.

Thursday was the second time that church officials made the request, which was denied at a September meeting.

On Thursday, church business manager Preston Ghaner again addressed the board, though he admitted little had changed since an initial appeal.

“I think we’ve said pretty much all we have to say,” Ghaner said.

The First United Methodist Church of Hollidaysburg sits diagonally across Walnut Street from the former planing mill and its companion structures. All are now owned by the church.

Church officials have expressed a desire to demolish the buildings — the oldest constructed about 1905 — and to build a large structure on the site.

Church officials have referred to the new building as a family center, while others have called it a recreation facility.

Conceptual plans displayed in September showed a large building with an adjacent 41-space parking lot, but it has been said multiple times that plans have not been finalized.

That uncertainty, as well as other factors, led HARB members to vote against the demolition recommendation in September.

Those appointed to HARB are tasked with hearing requests about building changes in the protected historic district before making recommendations to Borough Council about whether or not to approve them. Borough Council is not required to vote in line with those recommendations.

Per protocol, the September decision by a majority of HARB members led to a 90-day period in which the two parties were to seek a compromise before Thursday’s second vote.

During that 90-day period, and at the Thursday meeting, congregation members repeatedly argued that the proposed building is crucial for the church to grow.

David Gorman was among those in the congregation to speak out. He addressed members of HARB and non-voting members of the borough’s Historic Preservation Commission, listing nearly a dozen groups that would be able to make use of the proposed building.

“You have a church that wants to reach out to the community,” he said.

Gorman was the only resident to speak positively about the plans at the meeting.

Numerous others addressed the board and commission to reiterate claims that a large recreation-style building and its associated traffic and noise would have a negative effect on the historic district’s appearance, as well as the quality of life.

“It should be a residential home or houses if it can’t be anything else,” Walnut Street resident Colleen Montrella said, presenting an opinion backed by dozens of others in the community.

Church officials have long maintained that the planing mill building, which is in disrepair, can not be saved.

Years of neglect by a previous owner, as well as a past fire, have done little to help preserve the aging building, Ghaner said.

“The building, if nothing is done to it, it’s going to go down on its own,” he said. “We’re just trying to speed up the process and make it into something usable.”

But HPC member Richard Latker said he knows of at least one Altoona-based developer who had expressed an interest in preserving at least parts of the buildings.

Church representative Tomas “Tim” Boland doubted the seriousness of that developer’s interest.

“Has this developer seen the inside of the building? What are those developers plans? Has he done a feasibility study?” Boland asked.

The answer to those questions may have been no, but HARB Chairman Andy Haines said that may be the fault of church officials.

“I talked to the developer,” Haines said. “He did not get a chance to do a lot of the studies because his calls and his approaches to the church were rejected outright.”

Boland, a former HPC member, did not deny that rebuttal.

And HPC member Josh Patt said he believes it was never the church officials’ intention to preserve the historical buildings.

“I think their plans are to just let it fall down.” he said. “It was clearly a land-grab.”

The “demolition by neglect” argument was given several times during the night, but Boland said church officials never intended to allow the building to fall to ruin.

Still, he admitted that adverse weather could easily cause the building to collapse.

Barring a collapse, the building remains, and Haines, since before the September vote, has asked church officials to curb demolition plans until their new building is approved.

Before the church can build, officials must secure proper zoning and planning approvals. If those approvals, which can be given before demolition, are not granted and the mill is razed, the neighborhood will have suffered the loss of a historical building, and an empty lot will remain it its place.

Securing approvals prior to demolition could do much to quell community outrage, Haines said.

“That is the sign of a good neighbor,” he said. “I think it shows the neighborhood that you’re willing to work with them, which I think a lot of people are struggling with right now.”

During the meeting, Latker expressed a reluctance to believe that church leaders would abandon their current plans, even if that means fighting decisions made by HARB and Borough Council in court.

“It’s pretty clear … that the church intends to strong arm its way through this. They’re going to go to court,” he said before expressing belief that historic district residents are well equipped to meet that challenge. “There are dozens of people who have invested in that district and put big money into old historic homes believing that … was a protected historic district. … And I can assure you that that community is well resourced to defend itself.”

Ultimately, HARB members in attendance voted 3-2 to deny a recommendation to council.

Haines, as well as members Joel Koss and Holly O’Connor voted to deny a recommendation. Members Patrick Rabits and Donald Delozier voted in favor of a recommendation. Member Sondra Kranich, who voted in favor of a recommendation in September, was absent from Thursday’s meeting.

Borough manager Jame Gehret said after the meeting that Borough Council likely will vote later this month on whether to uphold or overturn HARB’s decision.

If church officials are unhappy with Borough Council’s decision, they can appeal to county court.

“We are not going to give up on this,” Boland said.

Mirror Staff Writer Sean Sauro is at 946-7535.