Property rights at heart of dispute

The dispute over the proposed demolition of the old planing mill in Hollidaysburg is more than a preservation vs. development issue.

What’s happening is a conflict of property rights — those of the First United Methodist Church, which plans a massive expansion in a small historic neighborhood, and those of its neighbors, who have bought and maintained expensive historic homes believing that their investment was protected by the Historic District Ordinance.

The argument over the old planing mill structure is largely pretext. It is a pleasant and bucolic site, but a policy of “demolition through neglect” was in place even before the church bought it, with the clear intent to demolish it, in 2016.

The building is in bad condition. Even if borough council accepts HARB’s recommendation not to issue a demolition permit, the church can probably overturn this in court.

The church wants to bring the building down quickly before it reveals the details of its development plans, which are known to include a 24,000 square-foot recreation center with at least 40 parking spaces.

The neighbors are certain to oppose these plans, so they are compelled to try to preserve the building, if only to prevent the church from approaching Hollidaysburg’s Zoning Hearing Board with an initial fait accompli.

The church dismisses any neighborhood opposition with condescension. Both its pastor and its business manager, Preston Ghaner, argue that because their plans have benevolent intent, they must be able expand as they see fit in the middle of the old residential district, no matter what the law or the neighbors say.

The opening salvo was thrown 2013, when the church asked for a permit to install an animated electric sign in front of its property on Allegheny Street. The Historic District Ordinance specifically prevents such signs, and it was opposed by every homeowner in the area.

Ghaner’s argument to council was the law unfairly constrained the outreach goals of the church and an exception must therefore be made.

The arrogance of it was simply breathtaking — so much so that even council members normally inclined to overrule HARB voted against the church, and the permit wasn’t issued.

This time, the church has been more calculating, using corporate-style influence peddling to try to secure a favorable decision from within. It hired the chairman of the HPC, the parent body of HARB, as its consulting architect.

A member of the church’s expansion committee volunteered for HARB the previous year. At the HARB/HPC meeting to discuss the demolition proposal in November, two members recused themselves to present the church’s plans to the board. The strategy backfired, and both men have since resigned.

The church clearly believes it can overcome not only the Historic District Ordinance, but also the residential zoning laws, in direct defiance of virtually all of its neighbors, who have no choice but to insist on strict application of both the Historic District Ordinance and the residential zoning laws, and prepare for litigation.

Richard Latker