Monroeville’s Grace Life Church has grand development plans for its congregants and the community.
The possibility of those plans moving forward, however, got less likely recently with the Monroeville planning commission’s recommendation against allowing rezoning of roughly 50 acres of hilly, wooded land so Grace Life can build an estimated $5 million commercial development that would include a church building, private club, ice rink, zip lines and a ropes course.
Commissioner Georgiana Woodhall said developing the property would not align with Monroeville’s comprehensive plan from 2005.
“This property is zoned conservancy for a reason,” Woodhall said.
Monroeville council will have a public hearing on the zoning request Thursday. It is expected to consider the zoning changes from conservancy and residential to business commercial at a Tuesday meeting.
The church bought the property in 2015 for $375,000, according to Allegheny County records. It is next to a former furniture warehouse at 4761 William Penn Highway that was donated to the church, remodeled and has served as the worship center for its roughly 2,000 congregants since 2013.
Although the 50 acres are mostly undeveloped, the property includes a mobile home park, as well as a Peace, Love and Little Donuts business the church opened in 2016.
Pastor Bruce “Buck” Schafer calls Grace Life a “marketplace ministry,” meaning it uses the businesses to support the nondenominational church. He is appealing the county’s decision to deny the church’s request for tax exemption on the property.
“We want people to give to the church, but we don’t pressure them,” Schafer said. “We train leaders, employ people and the profits come back to the ministry.”
Despite the unfavorable vote from the planning commission, Schafer remains confident about the church’s development project.
“It’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when. We’re not going anywhere,” he said.
Schafer said the church has no plans to move the 16 mobile homes on its property along Brookside Drive when the project gets under way, but some residents at the park aren’t so sure.
“I wouldn’t put it past them to try to get us out of here,” said Rosalie Crise, who has been a tenant since 2008.
Linda Emerick fears the worst. She’s lived there since 1990.
“When they first took over, we could do no wrong and they were all very kind and generous,” Emerick said. “It sounds cold, but I really believe it: I could be standing out in the street and Pastor Buck could come by in his truck and I wouldn’t even get a honk or a wave.”
Schafer doesn’t understand what is generating that kind of criticism. He said the church provides free property maintenance, such as grass cutting and trimming, and recently financed $150,000 worth of improvements to water pipes leading to the trailers.
“We’ve done nothing but make life better for them,” he said.
But Emerick, 68, said a $20 rent increase in June and hikes in fees for water service tell a different story.
“I think they’re trying to nickel and dime us until we leave,” she said.
Dillon Carr is a Tribune-Review staff writer.