Oh, local government, how we love thee.
Less than 24 hours after the Philadelphia Historical Commission reversed its decision to designate the Christian Street Baptist Church in Bella Vista as being historic, preservationists and independent attorneys argued Tuesday that the group's unexpected turnabout cannot stand.
In a letter sent Tuesday to members of the Historical Commission and city officials, Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, argued that the commission's Monday decision to recount its vote — ultimately taking the property off the city's Historic Register — was "defective and violates the rights of commission members, property owners, nominators, and the citizens of the City of Philadelphia."
"We believe that the action of the Historical Commission … is procedurally deficient and in violation of the rules and regulations of the commission," Steinke said in the letter. "The proper course of action," he continued, "is to re-list the matter for a roll call vote at a future meeting."
The opposition from Steinke and community members is the latest wrinkle to what has been a surprising, lengthy, and controversial attempt in recent months to add the 1890s church to Philadelphia's Historic Register. Since the church's pastor, Clayton Hicks, and his 20-member congregation listed the property for sale last summer, the property has been under agreement, nominated for preservation, designated as preserved, and then, well, not. And all within a matter of just two months.
Steinke's position — supported by Oscar Beisert, the preservationist who nominated the property, as well as by independent attorneys familiar with preservation law — leaves the fate of the church uncertain. Hicks' congregation had been counting on cash from the $1.4 million sale to fund the church's relocation and expansion of ministry. Meanwhile, the buyer, developer Ori Feibush, filed for a zoning permit last week to demolish the church, where he plans to build five townhouses.
In a statement Tuesday, Paul Chrystie, spokesman for the commission, said the Law Department had not had an opportunity to review the issues raised by Steinke or any others and therefore would not comment at this time.
On Monday morning — just 11 days after the Historical Commission designated Christian Street Baptist Church as historic — the group notified all parties involved that the decision had been incorrectly tallied. Chrystie said in a conference call with reporters Monday afternoon that the unexpected change was the result of a misunderstanding of the commission's voting rules. The original vote was 5-4, with two members, chairman Robert Thomas and John Mattioni, abstaining. Chrystie said the commission changed the status after later learning that its own regulations stipulate that a majority must be reached by all members present — including those abstaining.
Steinke's letter to Historical Commission members Tuesday detailed why he believed that logic was flawed.
"The purported rescinding of the designation did not take place in a public meeting," Steinke explained in the letter. "Thus, it is void under the Sunshine Act, and the original designation … would stand at this time."
"Such action must be done in public meeting for it to be valid official action," he wrote.
Yet according to Mark Zecca, a Philadelphia attorney who served in the city's Law Department for two decades — including many years, he said, as counsel to the Historical Commission — the commission's reversal Monday was flawed in other ways, too. In an interview Tuesday, Zecca argued that common law established by previous judicial decisions stipulates that so long as a quorum is present at a meeting, all that is required for a valid vote is a majority of the quorum. The Historical Commission defines a quorum as eight members — meaning the original five votes in favor of preservation on Nov. 10 would stand.
The commission's regulations do not nullify this common-law rule, Zecca said. When he served as counsel to the commission, he added, that common law was "internal commission precedent."
"I think it's improper to switch the precedent" now, Zecca said.
Jeffrey Hill, a representative for the church, declined to comment Tuesday.
Feibush said he had not yet read the letter and was not familiar enough with case law to comment on either Zecca's or Steinke's arguments. However, he added that Steinke was "spinning his wheels here" and should instead be "spending his energy trying to find a buyer."
"I would be overjoyed to allow someone else to step into my shoes," Feibush said of his agreement of sale for the church, which he said is a contract that could be passed on to another buyer. "… I'd sign it over tomorrow if there was a buyer for it."