Golf Course project now in the zone

By on February 22, 2017
Attorney Bob Weaver presenting HVMI’s case.

Attorney Bob Weaver presenting HVMI’s case.

Akron Borough Council has cleared the way for what will likely be a lengthy process of transforming West View Golf Course into a facility for the multi-faceted work of HandiVangelism Ministries International.

The council approved a change to the borough zoning ordinance to allow, as a conditional use, an organizational headquarters in the borough’s R1 (low-density residential) zones. The facility must meet a number of requirements, one of which is an eight-acre minimum lot size. An organizational headquarters had previously been permitted in the borough’s R2 (medium-density residential) zone.

The borough hall meeting room was filled for the February voting session as HVMI Executive Director Tim Sheetz, his assistant Kyle Robinson, and the HVMI lawyer Robert Weaver described their hopes for the West View site. HVMI is a non-profit Christian organization with varied programs serving physically handicapped individuals and others with a range of needs.

One of their ministries is a summer camp program for handicapped people, many of them wheelchair dependent. The camping program is now conducted at two rented sites, one in New Jersey and one in Pennsylvania. Both sites, Sheetz told council, are high maintenance, with HVMI footing the bill for many of the improvements needed to keep the camps in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. A new facility at West View would be fully ADA compliant, Sheetz said, and any money spent on maintenance would be spent on their own property.

HVMI’s headquarters is also a rented space in the former Science Press building on Chestnut Street in Ephrata.

Robinson outlined HVMI’s projected timetable for developing the property. The first need would be housing for the campers and their counselors. In contrast to camps for able-bodied youths, which might have one counselor for 10 campers, each HVMI camper has a counselor.

The second need for the site would be the headquarters building which, Robinson said, they would like to have ready for when the lease on the Ephrata space runs out in a couple of years. Finally, there would be three residences that would provide housing for full-time, year-round HVMI staff. Construction is planned to take place over a five- to six-year period.

The residences, when completed, will be subject to the same real estate taxes that apply to any property in the borough. The rest of the property, under Pennsylvania law pertaining to non-profit 501(c)(3) organizations, would not be taxable. This has proven to be a bit of a sticking point between HVMI and the borough. The Ephrata Area School District also considers the tax-free portion of the property an issue, but council focused on the borough’s portion.

Akron Borough receives $1,164 of the $11,800 total tax bill paid annually by West View’s current owner, Robin Seidel. If HVMI’s plans come to fruition, the borough would receive approximately $3,750 per year from the taxable portion of the eight-acre tract, according to Weaver.

Weaver has been leading negotiations between HVMI, the borough, the school district and the county aimed at drawing up a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement. Voluntary PILOT agreements are common between non-profits and governments. A compulsory PILOT is another animal because the non-profit, HVMI, would be contractually obligated to pay the agreed upon payment in lieu of taxes.

This would be true even in years when donations to HVMI were down. Nonpayment of taxes under a compulsory PILOT would result in the imposition of tax liens on the property. The school district has been pushing for a compulsory PILOT.

There are no other compulsory PILOT’s within the Ephrata Area School District, Weaver pointed out. And he noted that HVMI would make the PILOT payments when “…it has the money to do so, not just when it feels like it.”

Council heard from a number of people about the positive effects HVMI has had on their lives and the lives of their handicapped children.

Typical remarks came from Sharon Shaughnessy, who heard about the Monday night hearing and drove from Downingtown to say that her handicapped 22-year-old daughter had benefited greatly from the care she’d received from HVMI, and urged council to approve its move to Akron.

After comments from the audience ended, council President John Williamson asked for each council member’s thoughts on the proposed zoning change.

Councilman Tom Murray said he had come to the meeting with conflicting feelings, but after hearing from the audience, he felt that in good conscience he had to vote in favor of the change.

Councilwoman Tammy Ruth said she had come to the hearing not knowing which way she’d vote. She was concerned about removing another property from the borough tax rolls and expected to hear from citizens who shared her concerns. There were no such comments. She voted in favor.

Councilman Justin Gehman also said he didn’t know going in how he would vote, but hearing from the audience, forgetting about the tax issues for now, and being a man of faith himself, he voted for the change.

Councilman Nathan Imhoff had been prepared to delay a decision, but felt the case for approval had been convincingly made. He voted for the change.

And Monica Hersh, the newest council member, pointed out that for anyone in the community who needed HVMI’s services, it would be nice to have them in Akron’s backyard, rather than a drive to New Jersey.

When Williamson called for the roll call vote, it was six in favor, none opposed, with Councilman Earl Shirk absent.

After the HVMI hearing ended, council proceeded on to a regular meeting. The most notable item was a vote to place a referendum on the Pennsylvania primary election ballot May 16.

The referendum will ask Akron residents if they want to approve small games of chance within the borough. If small games of chance are approved, eligible organizations, like the fire company and the Lions Club, could use them as sources of revenue.

Borough Manager Sue Davidson announced Marie Moen was hired as a part-time clerical aid for 20-25 hours per week, effective March 1. Retired borough police officer Dale Putt has also been hired as a substitute crossing guard, effective the day after the council meeting.

Tammy Ruth, who chairs the steering committee helping to fashion the borough’s updated comprehensive plan, said the committee’s next meeting is scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 23, at 6:30 p.m. at the Akron Fire Hall. It is open to the public and Ruth encouraged any interested citizens to attend.

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