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Ritz Theater closed, now in solitary demise

By Staff | Dec 28, 2015

MUNCY – When the Ritz Theater opened its doors in the early 1920s, patrons were thrilled by the silent film “Queen of Sheba” as it flashed across the screen. Now, sadly, the doors are closed and the marquee displays not a movie title, but a sharp criticism of borough officials.

Due to health reasons and a lack of business, theater owner Jay Richards has been trying to sell the building since the theater closed in September 2014. In November of that year, he received a purchase offer from 3:16 Covenant Church in Williamsport.

Founded by Pastor Salvatore Minnella in July 2013, 3:16 Covenant Church rents space for worship and children’s ministry at the Williamsport Holiday Inn. According to Minnella, as the church began to grow, there became a need for a permanent location, and he explored the possibility of purchasing the Ritz.

“We felt that the location had prime marketing appeal, seating for 300, and the stage and screen for worship were already in place,” Minnella said. “We were not planning to make any changes to the facility besides paint and lighting. The location was perfect for our needs. As a church, we felt the theater would have fit our potential for growth and outreach.”

The sale was contingent on the church receiving a change of use variance, but that was denied because the borough’s zoning ordinance does not permit churches in the business district.

According to Borough Manager William Ramsey, the purpose of the ordinance was to locate churches within walking distance of the residential neighborhoods.

Having been denied, the 3:16 church sought a hearing before the zoning hearing board earlier this year. In order to be granted the change-of-use variance, five criteria needed to be met – one of them proving hardship by the current owner.

Zoning hearing board solicitor Howard Langdon noted that a change-of-use variance is difficult to get.

“The church did not meet one major criteria. They had to prove hardship,” he said.

He also said ordinances are written by the borough council, and that the zoning board is reluctant to override the council.

In order to prove hardship, the owner of the property had to show that the property couldn’t be sold to someone else who would use it in a way that is permitted in that area.

Richards, who testified that he had other people interested in the property, one for a bar or tavern and restaurant, acceptable usages under the ordinance, could not prove hardship, and the variance was denied by a vote of 5-0.

“Since he could sell it to another business, they did not see this as a hardship and denied it on this basis,” Minnella said. “The owner explained that other businesses did not want the location because of the cost to remodel, to raise the floor and inherit a huge expense. At the end of the meeting, the board started to discuss the ordinances, which were not reviewed with us prior to the meeting. We were also not allowed to speak at this point during the meeting.

“The information they were basing their decision on was not discussed with the church during the meeting and, at this point, we were unable to interject any thoughts,” he added.

The church decided not to appeal because, according to Richards, “They didn’t think they had any hope.”

Minnella, however, tells a different story.

Chose not to appeal

“The borough did explain that we could appeal, but we did not appeal because the appeal letter from the borough was not sent to 3:16 Covenant Church until after the appeal time had elapsed. It took a few phone calls before I got the letter of denial for the appeal,” he said.

“After much prayer as a church, we felt that God had closed this door and wanted something else for our church,” Minnella said.

“I thought the church would be good for the town. They have a youth fellowship, which helps the elderly,” Richards said. “There was someone who wanted to buy it for a dinner theater where there would be a bar. Who in Muncy would send their kids to that?”

Countering the argument of the zoning hearing board in denying the variance, he said, “You can have 50 people interested in a building, but that doesn’t mean they will buy it.”

As far as hardship, Richards contended that he has lost thousands of dollars over the past four or five years.

Because the theater is in a flood zone, he must pay flood insurance. Add that to taxes, utilities, liability insurance and a mortgage on the building, and Richards figures he has lost over $30,000 from the loss of the sale.

So why, after almost a year, did Richards blazen on his marquee that Muncy borough officials would allow a bar but not a church to buy his building?

Owner frustrated

“Frustration,” according to the theater owner.

On a personal level, Richards has had other issues with borough officials concerning his property. On a business level, most recently his complaints have been about a portion of the theater’s roof that he contends was damaged when the building next door was razed by the borough.

“They tore over 55 feet of roof and they still have to replace it,” he alleges.

The borough’s official response to his allegation is that “Mr. Richards has obtained legal counsel, so the borough can’t comment.”

The controversial sign was put up the Saturday before Veterans Day when the borough hosted the county’s Veterans Day Parade. It soon was noticed.

Borough officials are quick to note that it is not the borough council that is prohibiting a church to locate in the borough, which is what the sign implies. Rather, they contend that it is the zoning board prohibiting churches in certain areas.

The Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said that action is not allowed under a federal law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which was enacted in 2000.

According to Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director of ACLU of Pennsylvania, under the act, “when it comes to churches, the borough can’t enforce any rule limiting where they can operate unless it has a compelling reason for doing so.”

“The only ‘compelling reason’ I can think of for excluding a church from where it wants to operate,” she said, “is if the church wanted to locate next to a dangerous industrial site or something like that.

Exceptions for churches

“The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act is a special kind of law,” Roper added, “because it doesn’t only forbid discrimination against churches. It actually requires the borough to make exceptions for churches even if it wouldn’t make exceptions for other land uses. In some ways, it requires the borough to treat churches better than it treats other types of land uses.”

Because of this, many local government officials don’t understand the law, she said. “It is a very unusual type of law.”

According to Langdon, neither 3:16 Covenant Church nor Richards raised the issue of the federal law during the zoning hearing.

When asked about it, Minnella said he never had heard of the act before the ACLU made it known to him.

“If we would have known this, we would have used this at the meeting,” he said.

Although Langdon indicated that at some point in the future the church could reapply for a variance, Minnella indicated that his church is pursuing another location in the Williamsport area.

“With the information we have discovered during this previous experience, we will be better prepared in the future as we seek a place of worship. I do believe that we would have been a great asset to the Muncy area and it is sad that the board did not see this,” he said.

“As a church, we trust that God will open and close doors as we seek His guidance and trust that where He has us is where He wants us for now,” he added.