SP church can meet at former school

Published 10:00 am Friday, November 25, 2011

SOUTH POINT — A South Point church will not be immediately forced to leave its home in a former elementary school pending an appeal by its landlord against a state building code violation for its lack of a fire sprinkler system and firewalls.

The Cross Community Church, located inside the former South Point Elementary School on Washington Street, is not under any immediate vacate order, according to Michael Asebrook, a chief building official with Asebrook and Co., which is contracted by Lawrence County to provide building code services.

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

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On Oct. 28, Freeman was issued a Notice of Violation and ordered to “discontinue use of the building for assembly purposes and provide sealed drawings” to code officials detailing how the building will be brought up to code within 30 days.

As of Wednesday, Freeman had not submitted any sealed drawings to Asebrook’s office and the church was planning to continue to meet there, according to Freeman.

The church’s associate pastor, Jimmy Lemon, said by phone message Thursday that the church is waiting for the results of the appeal before making a decision on what it will do.

According to Asebrook, the violation was issued because of Freeman’s plans to use the building for residential use as well as a place of assembly. On the same date the violation was issued in October, Freeman was granted approval for an apartment in the building.

“The church is an assembly occupancy and the apartment is a residential use, so we have a condition where there are two uses within one building and it requires a fire barrier or other requirements within the code, a.k.a. fire sprinklers,” explained Asebrook. “His building is in violation of the revised code. It’s not an order to vacate. I don’t think it’s an unsafe condition. I just don’t think it meets code. He hasn’t provided us with appropriate or adequate information for our purposes.”

Freeman is scheduled to appear before the Ohio Board of Building Appeals Dec. 8 at 2 p.m. Freeman said he intends to argue that he has several “technical hardships that prevent compliance,” as well as discuss potential alternative designs. Freeman said he has hired Marietta-based architect Anthony Lauro to assist him and was meeting with him this week to assess the building and the way forward. “I’m optimistic at this point,” said Freeman, who added he was looking forward to the hearing.

Asebrook clarified this week that the violation notice “was not an order to vacate” the building. “It was a notice of violation, which is simply the first step in the process to document that a condition exists that is not consistent with the Ohio building code,” he explained from his Columbus office on Tuesday. “I did not tell the church it needs to get out. We’re not in the business of kicking churches out right at Christmas time.”

“We’re interested in getting this resolved. The sooner we get the drawing information and other information we will be able to move forward to a resolution,” Asebrook said, adding he had not yet been notified of the scheduled appeal hearing.

He stressed that his office is there to ensure building codes are followed for safety purposes and are willing to help and guide owners through the process of adapting old buildings to new uses.

“We are more than happy to assist. We do not want to be obstructionists but we want to make sure it is done safely,” he said.

“Taking something old and making it new again – that is a good thing. It is a very green concept. The fact that the building is occupied is a good thing, I just want to make sure it is done safely and done correctly.”

Freeman’s purchase of the building and his various proposals to adapt the building for other uses such as an office for his home healthcare business, other professional offices, and/ or condominiums has become a source of controversy within the village over the past few months. Freeman has placed blame for the code violations on “frivolous complaints” made to numerous regulatory agencies concerning his building.

Numerous residents of the surrounding neighborhood have opposed all of Freeman’s proposals saying they would prefer to see the building torn down and the property sold as lots for single-family homes. They have said publicly, however, that they do not oppose the building being used as a church.

Asebrook said his office is not on either side of Freeman’s property dispute with his neighbors.

“The only thing I am concerned about is does it comply with the building code, yes or no. If it doesn’t, I have a responsibility to do the notification process,” he said.