Church or food pantry: Harmar Zoning Hearing Board to decide Feeding the Flock Ministries’ fate
Feeding the Flock Ministries will have to wait at least another few weeks to get a decision from Harmar’s zoning hearing board on whether it can move into a building along Nixon Road.
The board held a hearing Thursday night that lasted two hours.
The non-profit organization hopes to move into a former Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses at 490 Nixon Road. But township officials denied its application because it isn’t a church or house of worship, which are the only non-residential uses permitted for the property. That’s because it’s in a residential zoning district.
The zoning hearing board will take the next couple of weeks to review the testimony given during the hearing. The next meeting date was not set Thursday night. Zoning hearing board Solicitor Craig Alexander said they have 45 days to make a decision.
Feeding the Flock officials maintain the organization is a non-denominational Christian house of worship. They intend to offer Bible study classes for all faiths, counseling and operate a free food pantry for residents in need.
During Thursday’s hearing, the zoning board heard from several members of the organization as well as some residents who don’t want it to move into the space.
The decision comes down to what the primary use of the location will be — a house of worship or a food distribution center.
Feeding the Flock Ministry’s board President Ralph Ussack said the organization has been doing its ministry for 20 years without a location, working with other food banks and churches across the region.
“We had an opportunity to incorporate and do something bigger,” he said.
Feeding the Flock’s lawyer, David York, said Harmar’s definition of a church is broad and the activities the organization plans to do fit into that definition.
The definition says a church is “the building, containing as the central room, the sanctuary and meeting place of a religious congregation, including no dwelling in the same building.”
“Every church’s practice of their religion is going to be slightly different,” York said.
There is no definition given for a house of worship. But township Solicitor Kate Diersen said if no definition is given then the default is to use a dictionary’s definition, which she said lists house of worship as synonymous with a church.
Diersen said the township commends the group for what they are trying to do, but the issue comes down to the location they are hoping to operate out of not being the right location.
She said the main purpose of the location, based on testimony given, was as a food pantry, which is not a permitted use.
The building was purchased by the organization’s vice president, Walter Reineman, as an investment property. According to the original application, Reineman said there was “no intended use” for the property at the time of purchase.
Reineman said Thursday he does not intend to make money off of the building and bought it with the intent of investing in the needs of the community.
“I simply want to give,” he said.
Some residents voice opposition
Some residents voiced concerns over whether Reineman would be tax exempt because he’s a private property owner and the non-profit would be his tenant, but York said Reineman will pay taxes on the building.
No formal lease agreement has been decided, but York said any agreements would be in compliance with the law.
Mary Jo Corsetti gave testimony on behalf of her client, Blanch Rodgers, who lives adjacent to the property and has concerns about the organization moving in.
She warned the board of what kind of precedent they would be setting if they allow Feeding the Flock to move into the building — one she believes would open it up for anyone to start operating such organizations out of their homes.
“This is a slippery slope,” she said.
York disputed that, citing the definition of a church prevents anyone from residing at such a building.
Resident Mary Herweck, who also lives near the property, said she doesn’t think the area needs another food pantry. She also has concerns about how the organization identifies itself.
“You’re not precise on what you are,” she said.
Supporters weigh in
Longtime resident Stanley Malak said he welcomes a food pantry and would like to attend the Bible studies proposed for the site. He said he’s on a fixed income and his pension has been reduced over the years so he could benefit from a food pantry.
“Right now, I’ve been treading water with inflation,” he said.
Several people spoke about the impact the ministry has had on their lives through various outreach programs, including 19-year-old Isaiah Drodge, who said he grew up in a home where he sometimes didn’t have food or heat.
“I didn’t know where my next meal was going to come from,” he said. “These people saved me.”
Emily Balser is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Emily at 724-226-4680, [email protected] or via Twitter .