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March 22, 2013

Jacob’s Well ruling allows nonprofit to move forward

Residents did not have standing to challenge deed restriction

UTICA — Neighbors fighting the location of Jacob’s Well Inc. in the former Utica school house will not have their day in court.

A summary judgment issued by special Judge Glenn Hancock said those filing the suit did not have the proper standing to file the legal challenge and dismissed the complaint filed.

“I think the law is on our side,” said Jacob’s Well Attorney David Lewis. “I think the judge made the right decision.”

A group of Utica Township residents, as well as the Old Utica Preservation Inc. group, filed the suit in Clark County Circuit Court No. 4 that argued Jacob’s Well Inc. would be breaking a deed restriction by housing people at the site.

Dustin White, attorney for the residents that challenged Jacob’s Well, said Hancock did not make a determination on whether or not there was a violation of deed restriction, only that his clients did not have the legal standing to bring the suit.

The deed restriction believed to be in place on the property was at the heart of an argument against allowing Jacob’s Well to locate at the site.

The 25,000-square-foot former Utica school building and its 3.5 acres 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 site since.

But when the property was deeded from Greater Clark to Utica Township in 2002, a restrictive covenant that limited the building’s use to parks and recreation purposes was in place on the property, White said.

Kevin and Barbara Williar, the co-founders of Jacob’s Well, said the goal of the nonprofit organization establishing the site in Utica was to create a place where single mothers and their children who have been living in desperate situations can begin to rebuild their lives. The site would house the women and their children while providing them education and job training.

But the residents who filed the suit complained that Jacob’s Well has continually changed its plans for the site, originally the former school was only going to serve as a training center, and that the nonprofit was violating a deed restriction on the property.

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 during arguments. “The township trustee required that at the time the lease was signed.”

Lewis said Jacob’s Well, since the hearing has occurred, has been working on developing a written proposal for public activities.

That written proposal should be available soon and a tentative date to open the building to the public is April 1, said David W. Evanczyk, an advisory board member to Jacob’s Well.

He said the plans include exercise programs that will be hosted in the gym and that the public will also have access to the school’s cafeteria.

“It has been our intent from the very beginning that we make available to the community the use of the gym and cafeteria under the direction of Jacob’s Well,” Evanczyk said.

He added that it was a provision of the group’s lease and access has been limited to the public because of the ongoing renovations.

As the state inspections are completed and as the facility’s bathrooms are functional, the building will be opened to the public. He added that a committee is working out the details as to the times of when specific activities will take place and when the spaces can be accessed by the public.

Utica residents had previously claimed that the community was using the building for years, as a shelter during floods, a food pantry and even for birthday parties, before it was deeded to Jacob’s Well. And now that the deed has been transferred, they have not been granted access to the site.

The nearby 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.

But even with the impact that they believe the nonprofit will have on the community, it was ruled those who filed the suit did not have the standing to initiate legal action.

“In order for plaintiffs to have standing, they must show a demonstrable injury specific to the plaintiffs, not just a general interest of the public,” Hancock wrote in his ruling. “Further, plaintiffs must have a substantial present interest and show an ‘injury in fact’ or a causal connection between a potential injury and the action of defendants.”

No decision has been made yet as to whether or not the Utica residents who filed the suit will appeal.

White said they are in the process of determining how to move forward and what avenues in the legal process they will chose to follow.

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