Washington rejects challenge to boarding house

City Council rejected a validity challenge brought by a developer who wants to convert the former nuns convent into a boarding house

June 18, 2014
A former convent on North Franklin Street that is the subject of a zoning dispute - Mike Jones / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

Washington officials rejected a challenge to the city’s zoning ordinance brought by the developer who wants to turn the former Immaculate Conception Parish’s convent into a boarding house, likely setting the stage for a prolonged legal battle.

Council during a special meeting Wednesday voted 3-2 to deny the validity challenge brought forward by Robert Starr, operator of Phive Starr Properties, who claims the city has no language in its zoning ordinance that would allow a boarding house or multifamily dwelling.

The decision comes more than a month after a public hearing on the issue, in which Starr’s lawyers argued the city’s ordinance was “defective” because it omitted those uses. Mayor Brenda Davis contended that the city does in fact allow boarding houses within its borders and claimed the application process should restart because Starr recently purchased the property from his business partners who were initially involved in the project.

Starr wants to convert the convent into a boarding house that would cater to Marcellus Shale workers who might have temporary jobs in the area. Starr’s attorney, William Bresnahan, said they are planning to file an appeal in the Court of Common Pleas.

Davis said she had no comment on whether the city would face a lawsuit, but stood by her vote. Tracie Graham and Terry Faust voted with the mayor, while councilmen Ken Westcott and Joe Manning voted to approve the validity challenge.

“This is a new application,” Davis said. “Mr. Starr’s name has never been on any applications or permits. When you buy a property, things change.”

Starr purchased the property from his business partners on March 10 for $39,245, according to county real estate records. He was not at Wednesday’s meeting and could not be reached for comment.

The Rev. William Feeney, pastor at Immaculate Conception, has attended each meeting regarding the use of the convent and praised the council’s decision.

“I appreciate that you’ve listened to what we’ve had to say and hope we’ll continue to have our focus on the well-being of the community and the people who are in it,” Feeney said.

Feeney and some of his parishioners have previously said they are concerned how a boarding house with temporary workers living inside would impact the area around the church and Catholic school across North Franklin Street.

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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