Planing mill’s removal approved

Despite protests, council votes to allow church to demo historic building

HOLLIDAYSBURG — A historical building constructed about 1905 may soon come down, as a majority of Borough Council members voted Thursday to allow demolition of a former planing mill on the 800 block of Walnut Street.

That decision was made in direct contrast to two separate recommendations from a board tasked with protecting the integrity of the local historic district, as well as residents who live near the old building.

“The neighborhood is overwhelmingly opposed,” Councilman Sean Burke said after sitting for nearly 40 minutes, listening to many residents’ public comments about why the building should be allowed to remain.

First United Methodist Church of Hollidaysburg officials have asked to demolish the former planing mill and its companion structures, with plans to construct a large activities building, which also had been called a recreation facility.

Community opposition started months ago, when it was announced that the church had plans to demolish the building, which is situated in the borough’s protected historic district.

Opponents’ arguments, the same ones that continued Thursday, focused on the impact of removing the historical building, as well as the expected traffic and noise that would come with the construction and use of an activities building.

Inversely, supporters of the church have argued that the planing mill buildings, which have been damaged by fire and neglect, are beyond repair and that constructing an activities building is the only way to accommodate a growing congregation.

The church’s business manager, Preston Ghaner, focused on the buildings’ disrepair when speaking to council members Thursday.

“It is estimated that 95 percent of the structural framing would need to be replaced,” he said, citing experts.

Ghaner remembered a site visit, when one of those experts visited the former mill.

“We weren’t in there five minutes, and he … said, ‘I got to get out of this building. This building is unsafe,'” Ghaner said.

A majority of the borough’s Historical Architectural Review Board had already heard these arguments and voted to recommend that the borough deny demolition. The same recommendation was made in September and earlier this month.

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.

However, Burke asked his fellow council members Thursday to uphold HARB’s recommendation.

“I think we need to defer to HARB … on this. They looked at it, and they looked at it twice,” Burke said. “We can’t unring a bell. If we tear it down, it’s done, and we can’t undo that. It can’t be reclaimed.”

When it came time to vote, Councilman Mark Shawley was the only one to support Burke’s suggestion, and the motion failed with a 2-5 vote.

That opened the door for a second vote suggested by first-time Councilman Brady Leahey, who asked for demolition to be allowed.

Leahey made sure to point out he does not favor the church or oppose the neighborhood residents. His suggestion was made with safety in mind.

“I can’t be a councilperson and have the concern of our policemen, our firemen and even our youth entering that building and being injured,” he said: “I think we are putting our local people in jeopardy as long as that building stands.”

That was a view vocally backed by Councilmen Patrick Plummer and Jeffrey Ketner.

“It’s all about safety to me. It has nothing to do with anything else,” Ketner said. “I don’t know if I could live with myself if a child got hurt because that building came down.”

Ultimately, Ketner, Plummer, Leahey, Council President Joseph Pompa and new Councilwoman Joyce Lowe voted to allow demolition. Leahey specified that grass would have to be planted after demolition and a sidewalk would have to be constructed.

Burke and Shawley voted against demolition.

After the meeting, borough officials said church leaders would have to wait some time before demolition could begin.

A copy of an ordinance displayed by Zoning Officer Patrick Rabits said a demolition permit could not be issued for at least 10 days.

At the Thursday meeting, an attorney representing a number of neighborhood residents said it was unclear whether legal action would be taken in an attempt to halt demolition.

Mirror Staff Writer Sean Sauro is at 946-7535.