Former city official wants vacant church razed

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The former city administrator for Washington scolded council Thursday night for failing to take action on a vacant property that has caused $20,000 in damage to his home.


Joseph R. Thomas, who served as administrator for the city between 1997 and 2002, said issues with the abandoned property have continued for years and he wants the property placed on the city’s demolition list.


“I think 17 to 18 years of waiting for a building to be torn down is enough. This building has been on the demolition list before,” he said.


The building, at 211 Grove Ave., is a former church but has been abandoned for years. Two years ago, an underground spring on the property caused water to flow into Thomas’ house across the street.


The city’s fire department had to respond and pump between two and three feet of water out of his basement for several days.


Now a sump pump in his basement runs constantly. Thomas told council none of the damage is covered by insurance.


What irked Thomas even more was that he went to an advertised public hearing this week on a 50 percent increase in city demolition funding and no one was there.


That hearing, set for 9 a.m. Wednesday in the public meeting room of Courthouse Square and advertised by the Washington County Commissioners, was not held. Thomas said when he arrived the room was empty and the lights had not been turned on.


He went upstairs to inquire at the county Redevelopment Authority and then over to City Hall, and no one was aware of the hearing.


He then stopped at the Observer-Reporter, where he was given the March 18 edition that contained the public hearing advertisement.


Thomas later contacted a member the redevelopment authority who told him the city has been given extra funds this year for demolition, with much of it earmarked for an area near St. Hilary Church.


Thomas said he was not looking to thwart that project or any other demolition projects in the city but wants the building across from his home placed back on the demolition list.


“I don’t want to hear that the solicitor or the code enforcement officer haven’t done what they need to do,” he said.


City solicitor Lane Turturice explained the matter had been under litigation. A religious group had shown interest in purchasing the church for a mosque but the city’s position is that a church is a nonconforming use in a residential neighborhood. He said the Muslim’s attorney had withdrawn his representation so Turturice plans to file for dismissal in the case.


“I don’t care if it’s a Muslim group, a Christian group, a Jewish group. I don’t care if it’s Pope St. Francis,” Thomas said. “I just want to get this property torn down.”


Thomas noted in order to conform and be a house of worship again, additional parking would have to be added. Thomas said there is no room for parking unless additional property was acquired.


Looking at City Council, Thomas said, “You all claim you care about neighborhoods. Well, the only way to help this city is if decent people stay here, so don’t drive us out.”


Someone in the audience then exclaimed “Amen!”


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