By BRADEN LAMMERS
UTICA — The battle between some Utica township homeowners and the nonprofit organization Jacob’s Well Inc. will get an answer soon on whether or not a lawsuit filed will go to trial.
A hearing for summary judgment was held in Clark Circuit Court No. 4 earlier this week regarding the potential use of the 25,000-square-foot former Utica school building and its 3.5 acres.
The former school house was transferred from Greater Clark County Schools to Utica Township more than a decade ago. An agreement was signed in 2011 to lease the building to Jacob’s Well, which has been performing renovations on the former school building since.
JACOB’S WELL PLANS
A letter submitted to the News and Tribune by Kevin and Barbara Williar, co-founders of Jacob’s Well, outlined the goals and purpose of the nonprofit organization establishing the site in Utica.
“We refer to our program as the House of Hope,” the Williars wrote in their letter. “It will be a place where single mothers and their children who have been living in desperate situations can begin to rebuild their lives. They will get a second chance to learn, develop confidence and gain the training they need to move ahead in life. Our program is Christ-centered with a strong philosophy of restoration.”
But local residents have said that the programs goals continue to change.
“We were told [originally] ... that it was going to be a classroom setting,” said Scott Sandefur, who lives next door to the former Utica school building. “Jacob’s Well was going to use this as a training center. In the interim it’s snowballed into ... we’re going to have 50 people living up here.”
The original housing plan was to locate the women who would be assisted by Jacob’s Well at a site in New Albany. The Utica building was designated to be used as a training center. However, the housing deal in New Albany fell through and the plan was amended to include housing at the Utica location.
It was the plan for women to live at Jacob’s Well that stirred controversy amongst its neighbors.
“I would have been OK with it if they had kept it the original thing they were wanting to do, just as an educational center,” said Kenny Morrison, another neighbor of Jacob’s Well. “If New Albany didn’t want them, why should we have to have them?”
Concerns were offered about who would be living at the facility. A letter from Morrison to the News and Tribune claims Jacob’s Well would be housing battered women coming from prison, among other places.
“The biggest issue is ... if these women and their children are living in this facility, who’s not to say their boyfriend or husband or person that battered and beat that person ... is going to be coming up here?” Scott Sandefur asked. “It just doesn’t make sense for this to be here.”
Jacob’s Well Attorney David Lewis said rumors that the tenants will be former criminals, drug addicts and that the site will serve as a halfway house were hearsay and simply not true during the court hearing Monday.
The Williars also disputed the claim.
“Jacob’s Well is not a drug or alcohol rehab center, a halfway house, homeless shelter or crisis center for women fleeing abusive relationships,” they wrote.
The program at Jacob’s Well is a two-year program designed to help single women 18-years-old and older. Participants will be screened through an extensive application and referral process and the program includes an on-site life coach and family advocate, who will provide guidance with life choices and for setting educational and career opportunity goals, according to the Williars.
The lawsuit filed by those living nearby Jacob’s Well, as well as the Old Utica Preservation Inc. group, argues that the nonprofit group would be breaking a deed restriction by housing people at the site.
When the property was deeded from Greater Clark to Utica Township in 2002, a restrictive covenant was in place on the property, according to Dustin White, attorney for the preservation group and several neighbors.
He said during arguments in court Monday that the restrictive covenant in the deed limits what the use of the building can be, restricts the grantee occupancy and requires the property in question maintain or enhance the use of the land that is adjacent.
And the restrictive covenant limits the building’s use to parks and recreation purposes.
“If you’re housing people there, it’s against the restrictive covenant,” White said.
White said a plan has not been presented to use the property for parks and recreational purposes.
“There’s no mention of any agreement between Jacob’s Well and [Utica’s] trustee for park purposes,” he said. “It is clear that it is to be offered to the public. It is of the public interest and public right to have the property used as a parks and rec[reation] facility.”
But Lewis argued that the plans for the building do include using the gymnasium, cafeteria and outdoor space for parks and recreation purposes.
“Jacob’s Well has committed it will be used for parks and recreation purposes,” he said. “The township trustee required that at the time the lease was signed.”
Lewis admitted that there is no formal plan in place, but the space would be opened to activities like volleyball and basketball.
“It won’t be limited to residents of the building,” he added.
At the end of arguments, special Judge Glenn Hancock said he will take the issues under advisement, but that he expects a ruling will be made this week on whether or not the summary judgment will be granted or if the case will go to trial. Even if the case does move toward a trial, Hancock said he expects the trial date to be pushed forward.
COST AND LACK OF ACTION
While the proposed and future uses of the building were argued in court, the lack of development of the property is a concern and cost.
Lewis said since the township was deeded the property, it has been incurring annual costs of $20,000 per year to board up the building.
“It was too expensive; they couldn’t maintain it any longer,” he said.
Pam Sandefur said she has heard that argument but believes there are ulterior motives, including protecting the investment already made to renovate the property.
“All we hear is the town’s broke and we’ve got to get more grants,” she said. “And then we’re being told to be quiet because ... these people have a lot of money,” she said of those donating to Jacob’s Well. “And the state is really looking at this little community right now because the [east-end] bridge is coming through.
“There’s still nothing in there. They have not helped one person.”
With no development at the site, Lewis said the building was deteriorating.
“The building continued to fall into disrepair,” he said. “No one else has an interest in this property other than the town and the grantor.”
He added because the building wasn’t being used, it was subject to vandalism, criminal activity and animals had begun living inside.
Again, the local residents disagreed.
“The school’s not in disrepair,” said Utica resident Jacky Snelling.
He added the community was using the building as it had been for years, as a shelter during floods, a food pantry and even for birthday parties.
“It had something going all along,” said resident and former town council member Ann Graham.
But now that Jacob’s Well has possession of the property, the residents said the public can no longer access the former schoolhouse. The residents added that there had been attempts to develop the site in the past, but they were blocked as a result of the deed restrictions on the property.
Snelling and Graham said former town trustee Robert DeArk had been approached by a retirement community that was interested in the property but could not enter into a deal because it would violate the deed restrictions.
Graham added that the preservation group had developed a five-year masterplan to open up the building for use by the town. But now the residents feel the facility will harm the community, lower their property values and increase costs to residents because Utica will need to add police officers to monitor the site.
“They haven’t done what they said they were going to do,” Morrison said. “It’s just going to be a big mess. It does not bring anything good to the town, and it’s still going to cost the taxpayers. We’re going to keep on fighting them. Every day they’re up there, they are going to have to worry about someone trying to get them out of there.”
If the deal is nullified, Lewis said Jacob’s Well’s owners will file a counter-claim to recover the $300,000 spent to rehabilitate the building.
“It’s going right back to what it was before,” Lewis said. “It’s going to devalue ... the surrounding property.”