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SP church may have to vacate

SOUTH POINT — A South Point church located inside a former elementary school may be displaced in the latest development stemming from a dispute over the building’s future.

Joe Freeman, owner of the former South Point Elementary building located on Washington Street, said he was notified Tuesday by the Lawrence County Building Department that the Cross Community Church has 30 days to vacate the building. According to the notice of violation, the building lacks the required fire suppression system it needs to be used for assembly purposes.

Freeman said he plans to appeal the order to vacate.

The church, which has approximately 350 members, has been meeting in the building for about two years. It was already in the building when Freeman purchased it from the South Point Board of Education in July.

Freeman blames the church’s pending eviction on complaints from adjacent property owners as well as “harassment by certain South Point Council members,” who are opposed to his plans to use the building for commercial purposes. Freeman claims neighbors and council members have “harassed him by calling the EPA, state fire marshal, building permit officials and OSHA” with “frivolous complaints,” that he says has now led to the church’s pending ouster.

“For all intents and purposes the community complaints have forced out a community church,” he said.

Many of the residents who have been outspoken about Freeman’s plans to convert the building into a business facility — a move that is limited by the zoning ordinance in the residential subdivision as well as through deed restrictions — say they have no problem with the church and do not want to see it leave.

These comments were made at the village council’s regular Tuesday night meeting.

“That is not our fault,” said Duane Dornon, a property owner who has lived right across from the school since 1999. “We love that church being there.”

Although many of the residents have been adamantly against any business usage for the facility, they all were united in favor of the church.

“We have no problems with the church being there. In fact that would probably be the answer to our prayers if the church just did the whole building,” said resident Brenda McKee, who added that her daughter attends services at Cross Community Church.

McKee said Tuesday night she planned to call the county building department to request the church not be forced to leave.

Village leaders, including Mayor Ron West and Village Administrator Pat Leighty, said they would do the same.

Freeman said he does not understand the reasoning behind the county’s order.

“The State Fire Marshall just certified our fire prevention and protection systems on Wed. 19 Oct. 2011, and found everything meets code for that size structure,” said Freeman, who produced a document dated that day showing that he had corrected seven previous violations.

“The fire prevention systems were existing in the building for many years and haven’t been changed. If the fire prevention systems were good enough for 300 school children and officials then why isn’t it good enough for 300 church members?” Freeman said, adding the church only uses the building one day a week for two hours.

A representative with the Lawrence County Building Department could not be immediately reached Tuesday evening.

According to Freeman, the building had a certificate of occupancy for educational use only, which had been secured by the board of education prior to his purchase of the facility. However, Freeman said, he has been told by county building department officials that a certificate of occupancy for assembly was required instead.

Freeman said when the issue was brought to his attention last week he filed a request to change the occupancy certificate but was denied.

Under the notice of violation, Freeman has 30 days to remove the church from the building and “provide sealed drawings” to the building department, presumably for installation of a sprinkler system.

Freeman said he is not certain that is what the sealed drawings are for, or whether he will be required to install a sprinkler system throughout his entire building. Freeman said he’s been given an estimate that it will cost more than $150,000 to install a sprinkler system throughout the entire structure.

As of Tuesday, Freeman had a county permit allowing him to use the building for one residential unit. His other hopes for his building — including moving his home nursing health offices there and constructing condominiums — are on hold for due to the opposition.

Freeman has been criticized by some of the residents in opposition for changing his development plans, but the businessman says he is only trying to be flexible and find a permitted use for the building that will be an asset to the neighborhood.

Residents say their opposition to Freeman’s plans is not a personal attack or vendetta against him. They say they simply do not want the building used for any type of business because it breaks up the appeal that attracted many of them to the residential area in the first place.

“We want to retain the integrity of our neighborhood and the quality of life we have there,” explained McKee.

McKee, Dornon and at least two other property owners have said they would like to see the building torn down and the land sold for additional single-family homes.

The dispute has sparked public debate in the village over what types of property usages should be allowed in residential areas.

Council members met Monday in a special meeting work session to discuss overhauling current zoning ordinance. The meeting was attended by a handful of vocal residents who want to see severe limitations in residential areas. At Tuesday nights’ regular council meeting, more than two dozen residents were present and many expressed an opposing viewpoint. They implored leaders to avoid taking action that could hurt future economic growth and to exercise caution in crafting a new ordinance.

West said he plans to call another special meeting to discuss proposed changes to the ordinance ahead of December’s regular council meeting.

Freeman said he is taking a “wait and see” approach to developing the building. Although Freeman says he has been advised by his legal counsel that he would not be affected by any future change in the village’s zoning ordinance, Freeman wants to see what the council decides.

“We’re going to start there,” he said, adding he is hopeful a compromise can be reached.