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Bishop Tract Rezoning Hearing Held, Continued to Aug. 27

Tony Di Domizio

Friday, July 25, 2014 • 4:33am

The thunderstorm that rumbled and rained above Hatfield Township Administration Building Wednesday night brought with it a comedic highpoint when thunder loudly crashed right as Keystone Community Fellowship Pastor John Cope was about to speak on the purpose for buying the 42-acre Bishop tract on East Orvilla Road and desiring to construct, in possibly three phases, a proposed 75,000-square-foot, 1,200-seat church, with a ballfield and 9.5 acres of proposed open space in a floodplain.

“He’s a powerful God,” Cope said.

Cope gave testimony Wednesday night at a legislative public hearing before township commissioners for the rezoning of the tract at 3100 Orvilla Road from Limited Industrial to Institutional to permit the church, its conceptual 622 parking spaces, ballfield and boulevard. The rezone would also amend the zoning ordinance and zoning map, as well as rezone a portion of frontage along Orvilla Road from Residential to Institutional.

“We think we can improve (the property),” applicant attorney Marc Davis said. “What we are suggesting is a 43-acre tract … be changed to Institutional. Nineteen acres is floodplain. We want to try to make this win-win and make it better and more advantageous to the township. We will be able to develop the property as we would like and the township will get some benefit (in 10 acres of potential trail/park system).”

The proposed ballfield, Davis said, could be licensed to the township, parks board or a youth sports association and be made available to the public.

Davis said a Limited Industrial District could allow many uses, including a 24-hour truck terminal.

“We got some feeling out of the township and the community as to what is needed, and ballfields are needed, and we are willing to enter into a partnership,” Davis said.

For three hours, Davis called five of six witnesses to testify on the merits of the development by the church, which, at present, congregates out of office space on Stump Road: Cope, Keystone Community Fellowship CFO/Business Administrator Daniel Cardone, land planner E. Van Rieker, architect Warren Mann, and engineer Rick Mast. Traffic engineer Tim Heinrich would not get to testify, however.

By 10 p.m., the commissioners took a brief recess, where they came to the decision to suspend the hearing and continue it at the start of the Aug. 27 meeting. This, after a poll by the board showed dozens of opposed residents and neighbors who had raised their hand in anticipation of saying something against the rezoning at the end of testimony.

Regardless, Commissioners President Tom Zipfel made it known: There would be no decision made Wednesday night and no decision made Aug. 27.

“There is no decision tonight. For those who are not so sure about the process, tonight is just a hearing for the applicant to put on their case and make comments, and then we close the hearing,” he said. “At the end of tonight, there will be no decision, at all, one way or another.”

Zipfel thanked the public for turning out for the issue.

“This is undoubtedly an issue that has received a lot of feedback, not only in prior meetings, but many of you have sent emails, and there have been phone calls to commissioners. If we receive an email, we circulate it so others can receive it and then we discuss it,” Zipfel said.

Solicitor Christen Pionzio said commissioners have no time limit to make a decision, but she expected them to come to one by September.

She said all plans entered as evidence in the hearing are simply conceptual ideas on how to best develop the property. If the board approves the zoning change, then the church would need to go through the land development process, which would address public utility and walkability issues and stormwater management.

TESTIMONY OF JULY 23, 2014

Cardone, who has been employed by the church for almost three years, but has been a member for 12 years, said he was asked to help develop the property, but realized it was “beyond my scope of expertise.” So, consultants and professionals were hired, he said.

One such professional was Mike Hart of Hartland Demolition. Hart began to dismantle the house that was located on the tract, and suddenly stopped the engines.

What he had was a 249-year-old log-style house that needed to be preserved.

Cardone said the property was purchased in 1760 by the Funk family, who would then build the house in 1765. The Funks would then establish a sect of the Mennonites called the Funkites, he said. The house then became a church.

Keystone Community Fellowship Church bought the tract in September 2008 for $2 million, according to Montgomery County land records, from The Estate of Richard Bishop, executed by Daniel Bishop. Its assessed value is $36,510 per county records, and its appraised value sits at $694,710. Its market value is estimated at $806,010, per county records.

And now there’s irony.

“It was kind of neat for us to find out and realize, because we purchased it and we’re a church. It had value to us; it was actually used as a church,” Cardone said. 

Now, the church is rapidly deteriorating, he said.

“We did some various things to it to secure it,” he said.

This left the church with three options: Find someone to preserve the house and reconstruct it elsewhere, find someone who wants to use and integrate the house into another site, or catalog and disassemble the house.

The church prefers the third choice.

If the rezoning is approved, the church could start construction next fall.

“We’re aggressively looking to plan ahead and raise funding for that,” Cardone said.

At present, the church has 14 full-time employees and about 24 part-timers.

Commissioner Scott Brown asked if Keystone hired a demolition company to demolish the house and barn on the property, asking if “he took the outside material off the home.” Cardone said the church contacted a restorationist – Mike Hart, of Hartland Demolition.

“From the beginning, our intent was to catalog, disassemble and preserve for future use. We never hired a demolition company to demolish the house,” Cardone said. 

Brown wished Hart was at the hearing to testify on the matter. He said Hart told him something different. Montgomery County land records show a reassessment was requested in 2011, for the reason that a building was being demolished. Records show the assessment is unfinished. A demolition permit was also recorded by the county in 2010.

“I’m under the assumption that the barn was demolished and the same gentleman was going to demolish the home,” Brown said. “He realized it was a valuable log home, and my sources indicated that was news at that point.”

Cardone stuck to his guns, stating the church never hired Hart, and only has a quote.

“We never hired him. We have not hired anybody,” he said. “The question is, did we hire someone to demolish the house? The answer is no. Did we hire someone to help preserve part of the house? Yes.”

Brown said he preferred to look forward.

“I’m glad that you are interested in preserving the home,” Brown said.

Brown then asked Davis if Keystone knew that the Bishop tract was on the 2005 Hatfield Township Open Space Plan. Davis said his client knew a rezoning would be required at the time of purchase.

Cope, whose family emigrated from Florida 13 years ago, started the church and founded its three locations in Montgomery Township, Upper Dublin and Skippack Township. Churches in West Philadelphia and New Jersey are also in the works.

Cope said the congregation is more than 1,000 people. Church services run Sunday morning and Sunday night. During the week, there are its collegiate-aged THRIVE Nights, prayer services and youth activities.  

Its congregants volunteer in various townships, mulching, mowing, painting, picking up trash, and the like. There are missions to Haiti and Nicaragua, and donations collected and sent to the needy in India. Cope said his church is the “chicken church,” as it fed local Hurricane Sandy victims 30,000 pounds of Tyson-brand chicken over three days.

“We don’t share the Gospel; we just go in and do something. We try to strive to say, ‘Do something once a month unconditionally.’ We provide a resource,” Cope said.

Cope said the church doesn’t have traffic or parking issues in Montgomeryville; neighboring business Harriet Carter allows the church 60 parking spaces every Sunday. 

“The property was almost used as landfill for the last 10 years. When we started peeling back the house, we realized there are logs behind this thing. We had no idea,” Cope said. “We said ‘This thing is historical.’ We stopped it and boarded it up as much as we could to help protect it.”

Commissioner Bob Rodgers asked if the Bishop family reached out to the church to buy the property. Cope said it was a man named Dean Shannon, who approached him one day when he got lost and pulled over in front of the tract.

“He introduced me to the Bishops. At the time, I was told they had someone to buy it. Dan (Bishop) said they want to sell to us, but the problem is we had 30 days to decide. We had no money at the time,” Cope said.  

He said the intention from day one was to have a “community-driven” church at the site, with a park and walking trails.

“We want open space, you want open space. We want trails and ballfields,” he said.

Commissioner Larry Hughes asked if the property could be sold quickly after it is rezoned. Cope said the church hadn’t tried selling the property. A local company called to offer a top price, he said.

“Our intention is we want a church there. We do not want to sell it. That’s not our goal,” Cope said.  

Cope envisions a church with an all-purpose gymnasium, ballfield, office space and more.

“We’re about people and God,” he said.

Rieker said the entire property is surrounded by Limited Industrial, including Twin Woods Golf Course and businesses off Sterling Drive. Most Limited Industrial properties are vacant sites, he said. The church proposal would have the building centralized behind a hedgerow and trees.

“The church would occupy less than eight percent of the property. About 39 percent at max would be paved surfaces,” Rieker said. “Limited Industrial is intended as heavy uses (like) a truck terminal distribution center (and) lumberyard.”

Limited Industrial, he said, allows up to 60 percent of property to be occupied by buildings and up to 75 percent for impervious surfaces, versus Institutional’s 25 percent maximum coverage and 60 percent maximum for paved surfaces.

Keystone would dedicate about 10 acres of land to the township to use as a link to School Road Park. The church and parking area would comprise about 12 acres, with the remainder undeveloped.

Brown said 19 acres of the property, including the proposed 10 acres for the township, is in a floodplain.

“I know it’s your job to make us think something terrible will not be put in there, but no matter who comes in, no matter how it’s zoned, you can’t build on 19 acres,” Brown said. “The threat that we’ve got to do this because of all the terrible uses of Limited Industrial are on the verge of coming to the property just isn’t fair.”

Mast testified that the first phase of construction would be the ballfield, 422 parking spaces and a 50,000-square-foot church. Phase Two would add 20,000 square feet to the church and 200 parking spaces.

Mast said Keystone is not hiding the fact that 10 acres is in a floodplain. He said there are benefits to a floodplain, including preserving waterways and linking open space. 

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