West View Golf Course moves closer to conversion

By on January 18, 2017
Rev. Tim Sheetz addresses Akron Borough Council about the work of Handi*Vangelism ministry, with headquarters in Ephrata and campsites in rented facilities in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Sheetz founded H*VMI in 1973 and serves as its executive director. Photo by Dick Wanner

Rev. Tim Sheetz addresses Akron Borough Council about the work of Handi*Vangelism ministry, with headquarters in Ephrata and campsites in rented facilities in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Sheetz founded H*VMI in 1973 and serves as its executive director. Photo by Dick Wanner

Handi*Vangelism Ministries International’s plans for a new home in Akron took a giant step forward at the Jan. 9 Akron Borough Council meeting.

HVMI has an agreement of sale to buy the West View Golf Course from current owner Robin Seidel. HVMI would convert the property into a headquarters facility for its ministry to the disabled, the addicted, the bereaved and those with mental health issues. HVMI also counsels with its clients’ families.

Summer camps for the disabled are a core part of the HVMI program. Camps are now conducted in rented facilities near Valley Forge and another site in New Jersey. The headquarters is located in the former Science Press building on Chestnut Street in Ephrata. HVMI was founded in 1973 by Tim Sheetz, who is now its executive director. Sheetz, whose Akron home borders the West View property, told the council that after 43 years of renting, he was ready for the organization to settle into a permanent home.

A story in The Review Feb. 10, 2015, outlined HVMI’s plans for the site, which included indoor camping facilities for clients, meeting rooms, a headquarters building and possibly three residences for permanent, year round staff.

The HVMI concept has had a favorable reception from both the Akron and the Lancaster County planning commissions, but many more steps need to be taken before the project can move ahead. These include a land development plan, sewer and water projections and a traffic study.

The first hurdle is to change the language in the borough’s zoning ordinance to allow for HVMI’s plans as a conditional use on an eight-acre tract of land within the borough. The golf course is presently allowed as a conditional use, and new language would include use as an organization headquarters.

One hitch in HVMI’s decision to move forward, and the borough’s decision to greenlight the project, has been the issue of property taxes. As a 501(c)(3) religious organization, HVMI is exempt from paying property taxes, as well as state and federal income taxes. And, as a religious organization, they are also exempt from IRS provisions requiring secular nonprofits to report their income and expenses.

If the golf course were turned into a housing development — which would be a challenge for the steeply-sloped property, much of which is in a floodplain — it could generate a significant amount of revenue, probably more than it does now as a golf course.

Seidel reported he recently completed paying his property taxes for the year. The total was $11,800, with $8,800 going to the school district, $1,100 to the borough and the balance to the county. The 61-year-old Seidel also told council he was attending the meeting with regrets, and that he would very much like to continue operating the course, which has been his life’s work since he was 16-years-old. But, he said, the sport of golf is in serious decline, and West View, like many other courses around the country, faces serious economic challenges. He added his heartfelt endorsement of the HVMI mission.

After about 45 minutes of discussion, council President John Williamson explained the very first step in the process is for council to advertise notice of a public hearing to discuss the required change in the zoning ordinance language. Council voted to approve that step. The public hearing will be held during council’s next regular meeting at 7 p.m. Feb. 13 at borough hall.

Council members will take public comments into consideration and vote on the R1 zoning amendment at its regular meeting March 13.

Before they listened to HVMI’s presentation, council considered a number of administrative matters, chief of which was the promotion of Akron Police Officer Greg Stone to the rank of sergeant with an annual salary of $77,127.

Police Chief Tom Zell also gave copies of his end-of-the-year report to council members, Mayor John Mcbeth and Borough Manager Sue Davidson. Recapping the report for citizens at the meeting, he said police reported 3,113 incidents of all sorts for the year. Criminal arrests in the borough increased from 89 in 2015 to 111 last year, and traffic citations at 778 stayed about the same.

In his report, McBeth, whose responsibility includes the police department, noted with favor their performance throughout the year, and especially at the town’s New Year’s Eve shoe drop gala, which drew an estimated crowd of 500 well-behaved revelers.

In other business, council voted to fill vacancies on the zoning hearing board. Kay McElhenney, who had been an alternate member, was appointed to a one-year term, ending Dec. 31. Tom Bender was named to a three-year term. They join Christine Burkholder on the board, and council is now seeking candidates for an alternate member.

Williamson was named to a four-year term on the planning commission, a post which he currently holds. Pennsylvania’s borough code allows for a maximum of two council members on the planning commission. Williamson hinted at the possibility of resigning after a new comprehensive plan is in place.

Terry Reber was also appointed to a new five-year term on the Akron authority. The authority has the ability to borrow money on behalf of the borough without affecting the borough’s borrowing capacity. The authority also owns the sewer system, which it leases to the borough.

There was some discussion about painting crosswalk markings where Oak Street, New Street and Broad Street cross Seventh Street, which is also busy state highway Route 272. There was a general consensus that while pedestrians would no doubt continue to cross at those intersections, sometimes at significant personal peril, putting painted lines at those intersections might increase the dangers to walkers by lulling them into a false sense of security. Consequently, no action was taken.

Considerable discussion was also devoted to the subject of limiting the time for citizens to speak at regular meetings. The subject arose because of a recent hour-long speech by a resident concerned about zoning issues. Both McBeth and Councilman Thomas Murray reported they have been attending council meetings for a quarter century, and neither had experienced anything like that before, and they believed it was not a good idea to limit speakers. No action was taken.

A public meeting of the steering committee that is working on updating the borough’s 25-year-old comprehensive plan is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 26, at the Akron Fire Hall.

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