Lawyers for the developer who wants to turn a former convent into a boarding house for oil and natural gas field workers uncovered a serious flaw in Washington’s zoning ordinance that has city officials scrambling to find a quick solution.
The city held a hearing Thursday night as the new developer, Phive Starr Properties, challenges the legality of the zoning ordinance because it does not permit boarding houses, as required by law.
“I understand that (city officials) don’t want this project to move forward. You’ll throw anything at it to stop it,” attorney William Bresnahan said. “Fight about the use later on. Fight about the parking later on. You can’t get around the fact that your zoning ordinance is defective.”
The original plans by PA Wealth Builders in Pittsburgh, recently picked up by Phive Starr Properties, to convert the former convent across from Immaculate Conception Parish into a boarding house has ruffled feathers.
The convent’s new developer, Robert Starr, was part of the previous ownership group, which allowed him to remain on the current application after buying out the other three partners involved with the project. He laid out his plans and gave a short description of the renovation work needed at the convent.
“Our plans have been extended a little bit, but they have never changed,” Starr said. “It was always going to be a boarding house.”
Starr said the building needs “a little bit of paint and a little bit of love” to be converted into a boarding house, and he hired a contractor months ago before being stonewalled by the city. He said they plan to market the location to Marcellus Shale workers, but it would not be exclusive to those fields.
“There’s a growing need for it,” Starr said.
Those in opposition to that plan said there are many factors that should preclude the property’s transition, but Thursday night’s two-hour hearing was focused only on the validity of the zoning ordinance. City Council voted in February to reject a “curative amendment” to the zoning ordinance that might have stopped the validity challenge.
The city attempted to show it allows multi-use dwellings because the former Sixth Ward School was converted into temporary housing.
City code enforcement officer Ron McIntyre also testified the ordinance contains information for multi-family dwellings, duplexes and apartments, but he admitted it does not include similar language for boarding houses.
In fact, the ordinance specifically excludes boarding houses from being built in the city, which Phive Starr’s other attorney, Harlan Stone, said proves Washington’s zoning rules are in violation.
Stone added the Sixth Ward School’s use as an “alternate living facility” could be challenged because it does not fit any definition in the code.
“We’re working with a lot of ideas, none of which are defined or provided in the ordinance,” Stone said.
The hearing eventually was recessed for five days so both sides could provide additional testimony or evidence if they wish. City officials then have 45 days to make a determination on the ordinance’s validity, although Councilman Joe Manning expected them to act quickly to decide whether they need to correct the ordinance.
“We want to make sure we address this now and figure out where the ordinance falls short,” Manning said after the meeting, without speculating on what changes might be made. “We’ll look at it relatively quickly. We don’t want to find ourselves in a situation like this again.”
He said a new zoning map will be presented to the public at 6 p.m. May 20 in Washington High School gymnasium, and that will help the city as it works to modernize the ordinance.