A Penn State fraternity that lost its university recognition is taking the State College Zoning Hearing Board, and by extension the borough as intervenor, to court.
Alpha Chi Rho was placed on a one-year suspension by Penn State in July 2017. In October, the fraternity was charged with misdemeanor counts of furnishing liquor to minors and unlawful acts relative to liquor.
The fraternity entered a nolo contendere plea — a plea that accepts punishment but doesn't admit guilt — to unlawful acts relative to liquor. Centre County President Judge Pamela Ruest in February ordered Alpha Chi Rho to pay a $500 fine, plus costs, and complete one day of community service for each active member (38 total), according to court documents.
When a fraternity in State College borough loses its university recognition, it's also no longer considered a "fraternity house" in the borough's zoning code.
According to court documents, Penn State informed the borough that it had withdrawn its recognition of Alpha Chi Rho. Subsequently, the borough sent a letter to 425 Property Association of Alpha Chi Rho Inc. notifying it that Alpha Chi Rho was in violation of the borough's zoning ordinance. Two additional letters, one from the Centre Region Code Administration director and the other from the borough's zoning officer, advised the association that the property was in violation of the Building Safety and Property Maintenance Code for failing to possess a rental housing permit and the borough's zoning ordinance because the property wasn't being operated as a "fraternity house," respectively.
425 Property Association filed an appeal to the State College Zoning Hearing Board, arguing that Alpha Chi Rho's use of the property as a fraternity house began in the 1920s — well before the creation of the R-2 (residential) zoning district and therefore giving it prior legal nonconforming status, according to court documents. 425 Property Association argues that Alpha Chi Rho's status as nonconforming affords it constitutional protections and that the borough may not amend the zoning ordinance in a way that changes the nature of the use.
Further, according to court documents, 425 Property Association argues that Alpha Chi Rho's use was created before "fraternity house" was defined in the borough zoning ordinance and also that its nonconforming status protects it from a 2010 amendment requirement requiring a fraternity to have university recognition instead of affiliation.
The zoning hearing board issued a decision in December denying the appeal of the zoning officer's determination and affirming the decision. A validity challenge to the ordinance, specifically the definition of "fraternity house," was also denied, according to court documents.
The zoning hearing board argued that because the "fraternity house" use isn't permitted in an R-2 zoning district, once the fraternity lost its university recognition, that meant it also lost its nonconforming status, according to court documents.
So 425 Property Association filed a land use appeal in Centre County court in January, arguing that the zoning hearing board "abused its discretion and committed errors of law" and asking the court to reverse the zoning hearing board's decision.
Oral arguments in the case have been scheduled for July 16, according to an order filed by Centre County Judge Katherine Oliver in early May.
Fraternities that lose university recognition are able to apply for a zoning permit authorizing the temporary use, up to two years, of the property as a rooming house, subject to certain criteria.
Those include, among others, that the building's ownership has closed the fraternity house because of disciplinary or behavioral problems caused by house members and the fraternity's alumni corporation intends to re-colonize the fraternity house within two years following the date of closure; that the building has an uninterrupted history of being used as a fraternity house for a period of at least five years preceding the temporary use application; and that the zoning permit must be applied for within 120 days of the building's closure, according to the borough zoning code.
If a fraternity's university suspension is longer than two years, "assuming the owner wants to maintain the fraternity use, after the two years the property would have to become vacant, or the property owner could move another PSU-recognized fraternity into the property (which has happened before)," Douglas Shontz, borough communications specialist, said in an email.
Currently, there are two suspended fraternities in the borough with temporary rooming house permits — Delta Upsilon and Sigma Alpha Epsilon, according to Shontz.