By Kaylee Lindenmuth
FRACKVILLE - Roughly 80 Frackville area residents came out to borough council Wednesday evening, many in opposition of a housing development planned for the former site of St. Joseph's Church and Rectory at Center and Frack Streets.
After residents spoke out at the June meeting of council with little confirmed information, while flyers were distributed afterwards, developer Craig Shields, of QSP Development, LLC came to Wednesday's meeting of borough council to explain plans for the development, answer questions, and address concerns.
According to Shields, and a packet distributed at the meeting, the proposed facility would consist of 30 senior apartments, "a community senior center with activity areas, fitness room, library and nurses suites." The apartments would only be open to residents 62 and older, according to Shields. The project would be funded through the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Authority's PennHOMES program, and the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, according to the packet.
"I know everybody has a lot of concern about who is going to live in there," said Shields. "What I'll say to you: if you're against senior citizens on social security, 62 and above, living there, then you should be against the project."
Shields noted that, currently, the property is tax-exempt under the ownership of the Diocese of Allentown, and he added that the propose project would likely produce $25,000 in tax revenue to the borough of Frackville.
One resident asked if adult children could move in with the elderly, to which Shields said no. The resident followed up asking who would monitor that, which Shields noted would be a building manager.
Another resident asked for clarification on who would manage the property, if it would be the Northumberland County Housing Authority, as rumored, which Shields confirmed. That resident also raised concerns regarding traffic, with the property surrounded by three one-way streets, which Shields stated its presumed roughly half of the residents would have cars, though its required to provide parking for all residents.
The property and the neighborhood
"We have a nice neighborhood up here. We'd like to keep it nice," said the resident.
"This is actually a $10 million investment in your community, and I guarantee you it'll be the nicest housing you've seen," said Shields.
Shields noted that the property would have income requirements, in that residents must earn between $20,000 and $35,000 a year. "People that have no income cannot live in there," said Shields.
Shields noted that the income and age requirements were set by the regulations of the tax credit they intend to receive, as well as a law, which he didn't name, noting that the laws he referenced hadn't changed in four decades.
Shields also noted that, through a $5,000 market study, it was found that a need for low-income housing exists in the region, which led them to undertake the project.
Borough solicitor Mark Semanchik then asked Shields, referencing the packet distributed, if borough council had received such information prior to Wednesday's meeting, which Shields said no.
Another resident brought up concerns regarding property values, noting that low-income developments generally only raise property values in low-income neighborhoods. Shields responded by stating the property values would not decrease, followed by crowd laughter.
Profits and funding
The same resident then asked about the finances of the property, how much money the developers would make annually if the project would come to fruition, to which Shields said it would just about break even.
"Quarter over quarter, on a year-over-year basis, where does the dollar come to your pockets?" asked the resident.
"It basically breaks even," said Shields. "Part of the reason why it breaks even, the rents are restricted for the elderly. Their rents are set by somebody else. These apartments, when they're done, they'll be beautiful apartments for $500, $600 a month."
The resident questioned the idea of one going into business just to break even, with another agreeing, before restating the question, to which Shields noted it'd be about $20,000 a year profit.
Shields then noted that the project is in competition with other projects across the state seeking PHFA funding.
"We could not get funded, this isn't a guarantee that it's going to get funded," said Shields. "There's about 90 projects (that apply), they fund about 30 a year."
Shields was then asked what would happen if the project wasn't funded.
"The property goes back to the catholic church, and what they do with it, it's up to them," said Shields.
"Do you have our backs?"
Another resident then approached council asking what they thought of the situation.
"Do you have our backs?" said the resident. "You see, no one here wants this."
"First of all, I didn't ask him to come here today. He came here and requested to be here. Borough council knew absolutely zero, so--" said council president Ron Jordan.
"But in the last month, wouldn't somebody have investigated it, because I myself, I called the courthouse, I called your (Shields) place but nobody called me back," said the resident. "How do you all feel? You see how we feel. This is our community. This is where we live. We don't want this here. It's not anything against you (Shields), or anything against anybody with low income or housing or whatever, but we had a church that was there. Prior to it being a church, it was a grove."
Shields noted that the project had green space in the plan, before being pre-empted for a response by Semanchik for the borough.
"At last months meeting, when most of you weren't here, there was a group of individuals who came to council and criticized council because they didn't know anything about what was going on, and the answer that was given at last months meeting was 'we don't know anything about what you're talking about,'" said Semanchik. "However, I did say, and I stand by it and I'm waiting to ask the question, in the packet of information that's been turned in, there's a development plan. The front door of your office, your business office, and your library runs right through the middle of a borough street known as North Beech Street."
"So, the answer to your (the resident's) question, is, I said last month--" continued Semanchik, interrupted by the resident.
"But I already told him that, and he already said he would split it in half, but my question is this, each of you individually, as borough council, how do you feel about it?" said the resident.
Pre-empting Semanchik's response again, the resident said "Is he going to be your voice only?" before conceding to council member's asking the resident to allow the solicitor to finish, walking to the back of the council chambers.
"Last month's meeting, the only information we were given is that this was going to be a low-income housing unit, just like over across the railroad. That was the only information and that was the accusation that was presented," said Semanchik. "Based on what was handed out tonight, it looks to be something different. Until we can get the information as to what's being referred to tonight, council really isn't in a position to give you an answer. I can say to you that, based on what I'm hearing tonight, this is totally different from what we were criticized for 'sweeping under the rug' last month.'"
"So, I as well, based on what council directed me to do, was to check into and support the position I rendered last month, that I think there's a borough street that runs right through the middle of this project, and that, based on my opinion, I think we have a right to preserve that accessway, because it's an existing street. That much I know, that's a fact," said Semanchik. "What we're hearing tonight, what you're hearing tonight, is the first time borough council's hearing this, so we would like the opportunity to go back and do our own due diligence and find out and check the status of these statutes that are being referred to, and the tax credits, and the limitations, and the restrictions, and what happens if the property gets sold, or does a new owner have to respect those restrictions. Really, tonight, we're in the same position you're in, we're trying to soak up---"
"How do you feel about it, I'm asking," asked the resident.
"We can't feel anything until we know the facts," said Semanchik.
"You see how we all feel, are you going to back us?" added the resident.
"There's no doubt, and we're trying to do our job in being your representatives," said Semanchik.
The beginning stages
"This is only the beginning stages of what we're doing. We've got a lot more work to do here," said Shields.
"And when did it start?" asked another resident.
"Six months ago," said Shields.
A third resident added that the Cherry Street Commons was a "done-deal" in its beginning stages when it became public at council.
"That's a family development over there. This is elderly. It's a totally different development." said Shields.
The real estate market
One resident brought up concerns regarding the real estate market of the borough if the project comes together, questioning, if the project consists of local residents, what would occur with the vacated properties.
Another brought up concerns regarding the age restrictions, if they could be considered discriminatory.
"I would say, that's one of the things I want to look into to be sure. I've heard a lot of references to federal law and to statutes, so I think we'd want to, for borough council's purposes, to know exactly what the program is that we're working under, and what we're being requested to consider, so I'd want to reserve comment on it," said Semanchik. "That's certainly a valid area that's going to be considered by borough council."
One resident spoke to the others in attendance regarding the power to approve or deny the project.
"We're not at the point where you need to do this yet, but, those people up there do not have the power, in Frackville borough, to decide by planning and zoning if that gets put here," said the resident. "Your planning and zoning in our borough is under the county planning and zoning, so asking them, and they each are entitled to their opinion for and against, but they're not going to be able to make a final decision. Keep that in mind."
Shields then noted that the project is permitted by the current zoning of the property.
Another resident, Ron, asked "who pays for the upgrade in the sewer system? That's going to need an upgrade, that system that's in there now won't handle 37 units. Who's going to pay for that?"
"What Ron is eluding to, when that was a church, and used on the weekends, there was no sewer problem in that area. When that was a school and it was used three quarters of the year, there was a problem every so often," said FAMA solicitor Paul Domalakes, noting that the school, at its peak in the 1950s, served 70. "The point is, I've been the solicitor for there, and in that area, many of the lines in the streets are flat. They handle a low flow pretty well. A heavy flow, they didn't, and the flow coming out of St. Joe's from time to time was problematic."
Domalakes noted that, based on the 37-unit inquiry to FAMA for the project, "there may be a problem, and there may be a serious reconstruction of sewer lines, not only on the property, but outside that."
"Mark (Semanchik) is exactly correct, the borough council last (month) didn't know anything about this, no one had approached the borough and made any inquiries," continued Domalakes. "So when the group was here last and mentioned it to them, they're like 'What?? What's going on here?' They don't know anything, they're learning this, and I appreciate you coming and explaining this stuff. If it's going to be 30 rather than 37, well, that's less than 37, but those are problems in that area," noting that FAMA hadn't been approached regarding those issues yet.
QSP and other projects
The Frackville project would not be the first of its kind undertaken by QSP Development in Schuylkill County. Shields referenced previously completed projects in Orwigsburg and Pottsville, with plans in the works for a new project in Minersville, renovating an old factory on Lewis Street. The Minersville project received a $1.2 Million grant and $1 Million in tax credits earlier this year.
Along with Shields, QSP Development also includes Noble “Bud” Quandel, who was also present at Wednesday's meeting.
According to Council President Ron Jordan, a follow-up meeting will be held on the subject during the August workshop meeting, set for Wednesday, August 8, at 5:00pm.