First Christian Church threatens to leave East Washington

Church leaders are upset that borough officials want them to repair a street curb and won’t allow them to rent the social hall for Weight Watchers meetings

September 2, 2014
The Rev. Stephen Smythers, pastor at First Christian Church in East Washington, said the church is considering a move out of the borough because East Washington officials are forcing them to replace curbs along Wilmont Avenue and will no longer allow the church to rent its social hall to Weight Watchers. - Mike Jones / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

First Christian Church leaders said they might be forced to move out of East Washington after borough officials recently told them they can no longer rent out their social hall for Weight Watchers meetings and also want them to spend thousands to rebuild a street curb.

The Rev. Stephen Smythers, pastor at First Christian, said church officials were informed in June that their curbs along Wilmont Avenue did not meet the borough’s newly enacted sidewalk ordinance and must be replaced by February.

Then Aug. 19, borough officials complained the Weight Watchers meetings held at the church’s fellowship hall since March should end immediately because business operations are not permitted in the residential district.

“It’s like living in East Germany before it was liberated. I’m serious,” Smythers said. “This is ridiculous. It just doesn’t make sense. It just seems like these new councilmen came on and they’re trying to flex their muscles.”

Although Smythers would not say how much Weight Watchers pays to rent the social hall for its six weekly meetings, he said church leaders are so concerned about the potential loss of income and the cost to repair the curb that a “very serious option” would be to sell the building and move the church elsewhere. Another option might be to bar Washington County from having the borough’s two voting precincts use the church as their polling places. The church also might no longer allow the borough to use its social hall for large meetings.

The church has been at that location in the borough since 1968. Smythers said the church board would discuss the situations tonight during a meeting.

“We’ve always tried to be good neighbors and do what we can to help,” Smythers said. “If they want to play hardball, I guess we’ll have to. If they want to cause problems for us, we can cause problems for them.”

The borough’s zoning officer, Michael Behrens, said he is merely enforcing the new sidewalk ordinance passed in February and gave the church a six-month waiver to allow its leaders more time to make repairs. He added he did not know Weight Watchers was a “for-profit” organization until newly appointed Councilman Bob Dickson complained at the August meeting. Behrens said the church can request a variance from the zoning hearing board, although Smythers said Dickson told him he shouldn’t expect it to be granted.

Dickson said every case before the zoning hearing board is “decided on its own merits” and he couldn’t predict what would happen. Any decision could eventually be appealed through Washington County Court of Common Pleas.

“I’m sure some people aren’t happy,” Dickson said. “It is what it is. That’s a residential district.”

Dickson also said the borough is not targeting the church with the sidewalk ordinance and that “letters are going out” to other property owners whose curbs are dangerous or in disrepair. Contractors Tuesday afternoon could be seen rebuilding a concrete curb along Wilmont Avenue just a block away from the church.

Smythers said in addition to the cost, he’s concerned about digging out a small portion of the roadway to install new curbs and how that might affect the street’s durability. He also complained if municipal officials expect property owners to maintain the curbs, then they should do a better job fixing borough roads and alleys.

“I can see (maintaining) the sidewalks, but not curb because it’s part of the road,” Smythers said. “You would have to dig out the road to fix them properly. They’re saying you don’t have to do it properly, just build them back up again, which, to me, defeats the purpose.”

The borough’s next council meeting is scheduled for Sept. 15 at 6 p.m.

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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