Old convent at center of Washington zoning dispute

Business challenging zoning ordinance after buying old convent

February 14, 2014
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Mike Jones/Observer-Reporter
A Pittsburgh developer wants to convert this North Franklin Street building in Washington into a boarding house. It previously was used as a convent by Immaculate Conception Church. Order a Print
Image description
Mike Jones / Observer-Reporter
The Rev. William Feeney, pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish, speaks Thursday night to Washington City Council about plans for the former nuns convent near the church. Order a Print

A developer that wants to convert the former Immaculate Conception Parish’s nuns convent into a boarding house will now challenge Washington’s zoning law in court after city officials emphatically rejected a request to change the ordinance.

Lawyers representing PA Wealth Builders of Pittsburgh, which purchased the former convent for $10,700 last July, said immediately after Washington City Council voted against a curative amendment to alter the zoning law that they intended to file a validity challenge in Commonwealth Court Friday morning.

Council on Thursday night voted 1-4 to reject the amendment put forward by the developer to define boarding houses and allow them in the city’s Business Improvement District. Only Councilman Ken Westcott voted in favor of amending the zoning ordinance.

“Why they rejected what was supposed to be a remedy for council is beyond me,” attorney Harlan Stone said moments after the vote. “Especially after we tried to fix (the zoning ordinance) amicably.”

He and his colleague, William Bresnahan, said their clients had no other choice but to take legal action after being stonewalled by the city in attempting to develop the convent that has been sitting vacant for years. The decision might ultimately backfire on the city if the court determines that it does not have proper language in its zoning ordinance about a boarding house.

Any change in the zoning code would not have automatically paved the way for a boarding house, Stone said, and would contain conditional uses that would require approval by city officials.

But the proposal has been met with steady opposition from Immaculate Conception church leaders and parishioners. The Rev. William Feeney, pastor of the church, and several parishioners spoke against the zoning changes during Thursday night’s public hearing.

He and others said they are concerned the property would become a haven for “transient” workers from the oil and gas industry. They also questioned whether parking would become problematic at the North Franklin Street property since there are no paved lots adjoining the convent.

“It might go well, but I think this is the wrong way to make a curative amendment for our city,” Feeney said. “We’re trying to find a cure for a disease that does not exist.”

But Stone countered that the omission of language allowing a boarding house in any part of the city was a “defect” that needed to be remedied. The curative amendment put forward by the developer was designed to keep the city out of litigation, he said.

“None of this has to do with the church, and none of this has to do with our clients,” Stone said. “This has to do with getting your house in order. The fact that the potential boarders are being portrayed a certain way should not affect your judgment on the ordinance.”

Councilman Joe Manning spoke at length before the vote and said he is eager to bring new development to the city, but raised concerns about how changes to the zoning ordinance would affect that neighborhood. He hoped changes could be made later when the city expects to review and update its overall zoning plans.

“When you act desperate, you’re viewed as being desperate,” Manning said.

Feeney praised the decision and said it showed the city is “still a community of families.”

“I think this is something that isn’t being taken lightly by anyone,” Feeney said. “It’s important for the future of the city.”

Mike Jones has been a news reporter since 2005, covering crime, state and municipal government, education and energy. In addition to working at the Observer-Reporter, he also has spent time at the Charleston (W.Va.) Daily Mail and Patch.com. He holds a journalism degree from West Virginia University.

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