The congregation of the First Church of God will meet tonight to decide whether or not to accept the offer made by the Armstrong Indiana Clarion Drug & Alcohol Commission to purchase their Woodward Avenue property.
Senior Pastor Nick Wilson said the meeting is open to only church members and not the public.
The church has met with opposition from the local residents of the Third and Fourth Ward who do not want the Commission to purchase the facility. At a town meeting last Thursday, approximately 80 residents voiced opposition to the purchase to representatives of the Commission. No one was present from the church. Police Chief Bruce Mathews said it was because over the past two weeks, the church leadership has received threatening phone calls.
The church purchased property along Route 422 more than ten years ago with the intent to someday build new facilities there on property they call “Vision Hill.”
“We are trying to follow God’s will,” Wilson said.
The Woodward Avenue property has been for sale for several years with only one other offer, which was not accepted by the church.
Local resident Robin Shaffer, who lives very close to the church property on Woodward Avenue, spoke at the Kittanning Borough Council meeting Monday night and asked if there was anything Council could do.
“There’s a lot of people in our community that don’t want it to happen. We have hundreds of signatures on a petition,” Shaffer indicated.
Solicitor Ty Heller said there was little that could be done until the new owners would apply for an occupancy permit.
“The Borough is without a way to say who can buy or sell property. But there are several controls by ordinance that are out there about what you can do with the property and how you can do it. Zoning is a big one. If someone wants to come in and change a use to a property, they have to receive zoning approval to do that before they can begin their use. After that, there are other things they have to comply with, such as building codes.”
Heller said the sanctuary of the church sits in a residential zone while the social hall and parking lot are in a business zone.
“This particular property presents some unique facts because of the way the zoning map reads,” Heller continued. “Some things are permitted in the R2 (residential) zone that are not permitted in the B3 (business) zone. There has not been a formal application submitted. Our Zoning Officer or Council cannot form an opinion until a new owner submits a plan for what they plan to do.”
The objection by local neighbors to the sale of the property to the Commission is mainly because it is viewed that the Commission will bring in persons addicted to drugs into the neighborhood and also drug dealers.
While Pastor Wilson could not second-guess how the membership will vote tonight, but said he felt that the Commission would be meeting a need in the community that would help rid our area of drug dealers and provide a path for those in recovery to become productive members of society.
“There is not a day that goes by that there are not drug issues in our parking lot. This community needs an agency such as the Drug and Alcohol Commission,” he said.
A petition with several hundred signatures against the sale of the property to the Commission has been sent to the church leadership for consideration.
It was on December 6, 1948 that it was reported a large number of people attended the cornerstone-laying for the First Church of God being erected at Woodward Avenue and Chestnut Street.
Wilson said that in recent years, it has been parishioners that have paid for maintenance on the building and not necessarily the neighbors.
“Are people willing to put a new roof on the building when it comes to a reality?” Wilson said in sincerity.
Although Commission Executive Director Kami Anderson attended the Kittanning Borough Council meeting on Monday night, she did not speak or offer any other discussion on the matter.
IUP Professor, Dr. Erick Lauber, who has done research since 2013 for the Mid-Atlantic Research and Training Institute for Community Behavioral Health, has studied the stigma associated with drug addiction in a community. He said the community often has very strong feelings against those who are addicted.
“We did a random mailing in Indiana and Armstrong counties. The results of this survey confirmed that there is a lot of stigma towards people who suffer with substance abuse disorder. We asked people: ‘Would you let someone who you knew in the past had problems with heroin or opioids work for you?’ A lot of times people say no. They just have a reaction to knowing someone had a history of substance abuse problems.”
Shaffer illustrated Lauber’s research with her statement to Council.
“Most of us understand the need for something like this in our community; we just don’t believe it should be in a residential area,” Shaffer said.