By BRADEN LAMMERS
UTICA — Renovations at the former Utica Elementary School will continue for now, but for how long remains uncertain.
Town officials last week failed to grant a request from residents to impose a stop-work order on renovations being done at the site by the group Jacob’s Well. Instead, the town’s planning and zoning board tabled the request with the hope that a judge’s ruling in a pending lawsuit regarding the property will make it unnecessary for the board to have to take its own action in regards to the project that aims to rehab the facility into the House of Hope — a transitional housing facility for single mothers and their children.
In the meantime, however, Jacob’s Well representatives and residents opposed to the project appear to be firmly planted in their respective opinions that they’re on the right side of what has become a heated debate in the small town.
Jacob’s Well is a faith-based ministry group with a mission to educate and help single women and mothers become self-sufficient. The group’s objective is to build the House of Hope at the former Utica Elementary School site, which it has been rehabbing since 2011. Jacob’s Well founders Barbara and Kevin Williar have said the House of Hope would provide living quarters for a small number of single mothers and their children while they completed educational, occupational and spiritual guidance aimed at helping them become more self-sufficient.
But a group opposed to the project said while the objective of Jacob’s Well is admirable, the town’s old school building is not the place to carry out such a mission.
To start, opponents of the project claimed nothing has been presented at a public meeting proving that Jacob’s Well has attained the proper permits to carry out renovations at the site.
“They never got a permit to do the demolition,” said resident and former town council member Ann Graham.
She said that Utica Building Commissioner Larry Wallace gave Jacob’s Well permits for construction in February 2012, well after work had been undertaken at the site.
“They had already been working on it for more than 12 months,” she said.
Still, several Utica Town Board members maintain construction at the site is moving forward within the law.
“Our building commissioner approved the permits,” council President Hank Dorman said, adding that state approval for work at the site also was given.
But residents’ concerns caused the Utica Town Board on Jan. 8 to vote 3-2 — with Dorman and councilman Steve Long voting against — in favor of asking the town’s planning and zoning board to issue a stop-work order at the site. That request was the one eventually tabled by the board when it met Jan. 11.
Town Board Member Jimmy Carter — who voted in favor of asking the planning and zoning board to review and vote on whether to issue the stop-work order — agreed that he thinks permitting for renovations at the site was secured and said he was unsure about what grounds the town would be able to issue a stop-work order if that’s the route it decided to take.
David Lewis, the attorney for Jacob’s Well, agreed that the town doesn’t have grounds to issue such an order on the project.
“I cant imagine, once they get a look at the law, they’ll continue with the stop-work order,” he said, adding that he would challenge such an order in court if necessary.
“They don’t have grounds unless we are in violation of the code,” he said.
According to Utica’s 2005-09 building ordinance, the only person that can issue a stop-work order is the town’s building commissioner and an order should only be issued if construction is proceeding in an unsafe manner, construction is occurring in violation of the building ordinance or state law or if construction for which a building permit is required is proceeding without a building permit being in force.
Lewis said there have been no allegations of the construction being unsafe or of any of the required permits not being obtained.
But Carter said residents’ distaste for the Jacob’s Well project is more far-reaching than concerns over permitting.
Carter explained that when Jacob’s Well organizers originally came to the Utica Town Board, their plan was to house the residents in Floyd County and use the old Utica school as an educational center. But housing was never secured in Floyd County, so the plan changed for the group to move its entire operation to Utica, in addition to being more financially feasible for Jacob’s Well.
“There’s a lot of people upset about Jacob’s Well in Utica,” Carter said. “If they stuck to the original plan there would be no problems.”
“That’s really what started the whole ball rolling,” Carter said. “The people of Utica didn’t want people housed there.”
Frances Duley is one of those residents.
“The deed restriction says people can’t live in that building. As of right now that building still belongs to the township. That’s our school, we pay taxes on it,” Duley said.
Carter said there have also been concerns that estranged husbands or boyfriends of the women being housed at Jacob’s Well would cause disruptions in the community.
“At the end of the day it will be a halfway house,” Duley said. “We don’t want a halfway house in that building. When you have shelters you have to have protection. We feel like they have destroyed that building up there that doesn’t belong to them.”
Graham and Duley both said they were not against the mission of Jacob’s Well, but that the facility does not have a place in Utica. Graham pointed out that there is no public transportation to the site nor is there convenient access to stores and access to employment opportunities is limited.
“We think it’s a great mission, we really do it just doesn’t belong where they are putting it at,” Graham said.
Longtime Utica business owner David W. Evanczyk, who is an adviser to Jacob’s Well and whose wife, Wilma, is on the organization’s board, said he did not know the motivation of those opposed to Jacob’s Well locating in Utica and said it may be misunderstanding about the facility’s use.
“This is not a battered women’s facility,” he said.
He added that it is a privately funded program that does not rely on any taxpayer money.
“Jacob’s Well and their board is just totally bewildered by the [opposition’s] effort,” he said. “We have been unable to talk with them or determine any purpose they have. We just don’t have a thorough understanding of where they’re at.”
Jacob’s Well is already facing one legal battle in the form of an ongoing lawsuit against the organization that challenges the use of the building for the group’s intended mission. Lewis said that suit was filed against both Jacob’s Well and the Greater Clark County School Corp. based on provisions in the deed recitals that state the old school building is to be used for parks and recreation purposes.
The lawsuit has not moved forward because it is waiting for a special judge to be appointed in the case.
Barbara Williar declined to comment for this story, referring a reporter to Lewis.