Developer appeals decision against former convent

July 16, 2014
A former convent on North Franklin Street in Washington that is the subject of a zoning dispute - Mike Jones / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

The developer that wants to turn an old nuns’ convent in Washington into a boarding house for Marcellus Shale workers filed an appeal in court against the city’s zoning ordinance.

Lawyers for Robert Starr of Phive Starr Properties filed the land use appeal in Washington County Court Wednesday morning, a month after city officials denied his request for them to include a boarding house in the zoning ordinance that would allow for his development of the former Immaculate Conception Parish convent.

“It was abandoned years ago and if you look to see what’s on the property, it’s dangerous structure that’s been vandalized,” attorney Harlan Stone said before filing the appeal. “It’s a nuisance and an eyesore. That’s the impact of the council’s decision; to preserve that eyesore and nuisance rather than allowing someone to develop it into a taxable and usable property.”

Stone added they even offered a “curative amendment” on the matter earlier this year to fix the ordinance, although that was also rejected. The appeal is asking the court to reverse the council’s decision and grant “site specific relief” to use the property as proposed and issue the appropriate permits to begin work.

Starr wants to refurbish the 15,000-square-foot building at 130 N. Franklin St. and market it as temporary housing for natural gas drillers, although it would not be exclusive to those fields. That led to backlash from church leaders and parishioners at neighboring Immaculate Conception over concerns of who would be living at the property.

Council voted 3-2 on June 18 to deny the validity challenge brought forward by Starr and his attorneys claiming the ordinance is “defective” and needs to be corrected or updated because it omitted certain uses. The appeal asserts there is no mention of boarding house and notes that city Code Enforcement Officer Ron McIntyre testified on May 8 that there is no specific language for it in the ordinance.

The city has attempted to show that it allows multi-use dwellings because the former Sixth Ward School in the Highland-Ridge neighborhood was converted into temporary housing. Mayor Brenda Davis declined to comment on the appeal and referred the matter to city Solicitor Jack Cambest. He said that this type of housing is permitted in Washington even if it’s not explicitly stated in the ordinance.

“If it looks like duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck,” Cambest said of the Sixth Street School’s new use. “It’s the same type of use the property owner is requesting to lease out rooms to those types of tenants. We couldn’t see any difference in that regard. Obviously they feel there is a difference.”

But the appeal states the ordinance clearly excludes the development from the city even if city officials claim a boarding house exists in the Highland-Ridge neighborhood.

“Council’s decision constitutes an error of law and an abuse of discretion, not supported by substantial evidence of record, in failing to acknowledge the exclusionary and unconstitutional aspects of the Zoning Ordinance and in failing to grant Phive Starr site specific relief to respect to its proposed boarding house,” the appeal states.

Cambest said he is reviewing the appeal and preparing to file a response. The case has not been assigned to a judge.

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 He holds a journalism degree from West Virginia University.

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