State College

State College considers the future of fraternity houses

The Alpha Chi Rho fraternity, which lost its Penn State recognition in July 2017, took the State College borough and zoning hearing board to court.
The Alpha Chi Rho fraternity, which lost its Penn State recognition in July 2017, took the State College borough and zoning hearing board to court. Centre Daily Times, file

State College borough is in the process of completing a comprehensive zoning rewrite — and one of the issues it’s tackling is the future of fraternity houses.

Fraternity houses, in the current zoning ordinance, are able to be converted to community centers, day cares, homes for the elderly, nursing homes, offices and private schools. But, Ed LeClear, borough planning director, said, with the exception of one instance, they haven’t converted.

The borough is trying to figure out what other uses should be considered, LeClear said, and what shouldn’t be allowed.

While not a unanimous thought, LeClear said State College Borough Council and planning commission gave a pretty strong consensus that they didn’t want fraternity houses to be able to convert to a new use and then back to being a fraternity house.

Daniel Lee, Penn State Interfraternity Council vice president for communications, told The Daily Collegian: “We must be clear, however, that forbidding the conversion back to a fraternity house is something that we cannot agree with, for many reasons.”

He told the Collegian that fraternity houses should “at the very least” continue to be used by students.

Additionally, with the removal of university recognition of fraternities as they get suspended — which, in the borough’s zoning code, means that the building is also no longer considered a “fraternity house” — the borough could be sitting on a lot of properties that are vacant for a while, LeClear said.

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.

LeClear said there’s some discussion about potentially expanding that time in the zoning rewrite.

There are six suspended Penn State fraternities now, plus Beta Theta Pi has been suspended permanently.

“There’s 42 of these properties, and if the university were to walk away from the Greek system in general, that has the potential to leave the 42 properties that we’re gonna have challenges with and those challenges range from vacancy to lawsuits for use to potentially unregulated Greek activity that doesn’t have any connection to the university. So all of that is stuff that needs to be wrestled with, and we’re gonna try to do that somewhat systematically through the fall,” LeClear said.

And, in fact, the State College Zoning Hearing Board, and by extension the borough as intervenor, is already facing a court battle from a fraternity that has been suspended by Penn State.

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Alpha Chi Rho was placed on a one-year suspension by the university in July 2017. The suspension has been lifted, according to Penn State’s Student Affairs website.

As previously reported, 425 Property Association of Alpha Chi Rho Inc. was informed that it was violating the borough’s zoning ordinance by continuing to use the building as a fraternity house without the temporary rooming house permit. 425 Property Association filed an appeal to the State College Zoning Hearing Board, which ultimately denied its appeal. It went on to file a land use appeal in Centre County court in January — oral arguments in the case are scheduled for late August.

The borough is through the assessment stage of the comprehensive zoning rewrite — meaning a consultant team interviewed major stakeholders and looked through the plans adopted by borough council over the past five to six years, LeClear said. Now, they’re into the preliminary draft stage, getting guidance on major policy items from the Zoning Revision Advisory Committee, borough council and planning commission.

Over the next three months, he said, there will be a lot of that upper level policy discussion. Then, they’ll have more concrete regulatory language available for review and comment later on in the fall.