Harrisburg neighborhood, church at odds over lot - abc27 WHTM

Harrisburg neighborhood, church at odds over lot

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A Harrisburg neighborhood is at odds with a church-owned lot. Church leaders want more time to devise a redevelopment plan while residents argue they've waited long enough.

What began as a neighborhood tragedy in November 1995 remains a neighborhood tragedy today according to Ted Hanson. The Fox Ridge resident said he remembers the night when Bethel AME Church caught fire. Authorities later said arson was to blame for the historic church's demise.

The present-day tragedy, according to Hanson, is the lot where the church once stood.

"We've been fighting it for 13 years," he said. "We're not going to stop."

Hanson said his frustration stems from the lack of a redevelopment plan by the church for the vacant lot. He Bethel AME promised to deliver a plan to the city and to the neighborhood in the early 2000's.

The lot on North Sixth St., next to the famed Jackson House restaurant, has been an empty paved parking lot since June 2008. Prior to the lot's closure, the church would charge state workers a fee to park in order to raise money for the church.

Hanson said he and other residents nearby are fed up with the overgrown poison ivy and described the lot as unsafe. He said he would like to see the church devise a plan to have the lot redeveloped.

"Commercial...housing...something," said Hanson. "The best and highest use for this land was not a surface parking lot."

To an extent, Mayor Linda Thompson agreed.

"While this is not the highest and best use, they continue to maintain it," she said. "Continue to mow it…snow plow. "

However, when it was pointed out that the lot has overgrown poisonous weeds and broken light posts Thompson responded: "Well, that's minor. That's minor."

Thompson said there are far worse lots in the city compared to the one owned by Bethel AME.

The church has filed an application to the city for a special status extension on the property. The Harrisburg Zoning Hearing Board will hold a hearing Monday night on the matter. According to the application, the church asked for "an unspecified period of time."

Hanson said he had to file a Right to Know request with the city in order to obtain a copy of the church's application.

For Hanson, he said the real frustration comes with the amount of the time church had to prepare a plan. According to the application, Bethel AME requested and received several temporary variances since 2002.

Hanson admitted he was a thorn in the side of former mayor Steve Reed on this matter and remains frustrated the situation carried over into the Thompson administration.

The mayor said the granting of numerous temporary variances is nothing new. She pointed to other locations and businesses that requested similar extensions. Thompson noted she has worked with Bethel AME and advised the church to hold out for top dollar.

"We guided them through the process and told them that their land is definitely even greater high prime real estate once that federal courthouse gets there and that they should not be getting themselves engaged into a quick sale."

Hanson is adamant the church required ample time to sell or lease the property.

"It's time to render under Caesar," he said. "C'mon!"

Hanson said what is worse is the church owes back taxes.

According to Dauphin County public records, Bethel AME owes nearly $6,500 in property taxes for 2011 and 2012.

"I'm sure if the church is behind, I wasn't aware of this, they'll pay their taxes," said Thompson. "I'm confident."

The mayor added she would let the zoning process take it course. The zoning hearing is scheduled for Monday at 6:00 p.m. inside the Harrisburg City Government Center.

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