The city's demolition ordinance was put to the test Thursday before City Council.
The Rev. Thomas Reeder, an Episcopal priest, asked permission to raze a church-owned vacant house to create an off-street parking lot.
His request set off a debate with Council and questions of equal treatment under the ordinance, which an ad hoc committee has been reviewing in recent months.
Council designated that committee to study the ordinance, which outlines provisions for property demolition, in light of a housing shortage and continued requests for removal of family housing.
Reeder, rector of Christ Episcopal Church, 426 Mulberry St., didn't get the requested approval to raze the house at 119 E. Fourth St. Instead, council voted 6 to 1 to postpone a decision, planning to revisit it next month.
Before the vote, however, Reeder told council the non-profit wanted the same consideration as other entities that have gone before council with requests to raze properties.
"We'd like to have the same consideration that Susquehanna Health does," he said, a reference to the hospital buying and receiving permission from council to demolish properties as it expanded the Williamsport Regional Medical Center and, more recently, to provide space for a new YMCA.
Since expanding its institutional zone in 2004, Susquehanna Health has been given permission to demolish 154 properties.
Reeder said the 120-member church doesn't have the funds to restore the house which has not been lived in since the 1970s, when it was used by a priest.
For 40 years, the home was a refuge for troubled boys known as St. Michael's School, he said.
"We have prayed and asked for God's guidance for the best use of the property," he said, revealing a decision that was not arrived at lightly.
The church considered options of gutting it and refurbishing the house or selling it on the market, he said.
No wiggle room
Despite the scenario, some on council see razing the potentially repairable and taxable house as unforgivable.
"Here we go again," said Councilman N. Clifford "Skip" Smith. "I don't want to see this house go down," he said.
Smith asked Reeder whether the church approached the Williamsport Parking Authority about purchasing a nearby parking lot.
"Our hopes of buying the parking lot were rebuffed," Reeder said.
William E. Nichols Jr., who manages the finances for the parking authority, said the parking lot in question is for permit parking only, but enforcement is for certain hours.
Reeder said the lot would not serve the parishioners and is closer to the parish hall and not the sanctuary.
"We're in an untenable situation that does not allow us to restrict demolition," Councilman Don Noviello said. Noviello didn't care for any inference that council favors one entity over another. "This body should not be maligned as playing favorites."
Councilman Jonathan Williamson suggested more conversation about other options, similar to what took place during the evolution of the Kohl's project when it needed to work out details for shared parking.
Reeder didn't disagree with more discussion, but he reminded council of a public perception about who gets to demolish and who doesn't.
"I can understand the public perception," Council President Bill Hall said, adding that each request before him and others on council, including when Mayor Gabriel J. Campana was on council, has been scrutinized, including Susquehanna Health requests.
Hall voted against delaying the vote to postpone.
On the church's property, the deed restrictions indicate if it's sold it must remain a "non-profit," said Joe Gerardi, codes administrator. "That means no private individual can buy it and turn it into a taxable property."
On Friday, Campana weighed in as the city continues to lose potentially restorable and taxable properties to demolition.
"Each situation should be considered a different scenario and it's council's responsibility to look at each property and each potential project on its own merits, especially when it's a place of worship," Campana said.
He said it will be council's responsibility to weigh the balance of property rights versus city needs.
"The constitutionality of the property owners' rights to do whatever they want with their property must be considered," he said. "In most cases, however, when those properties are removed from the tax rolls, the taxpayers must make up the difference."
Councilwoman Liz Miele, who chairs the ad hoc demolition committee, said the purpose is to try to be more thoughtful about what structures come down, especially as the city faces a dwindling housing stock and questions arise whether enough parking spaces exist for merchants, visitors and residents.