Penn State

Penn State’s Sigma Alpha Mu lost its charter. Now what happens to the frat house?

The international fraternity Sigma Alpha Mu revoked its Penn State chapter’s charter based on violations of fraternity and university hazing policies, leaving the future of the chapter’s fraternity house uncertain.

International fraternity leadership made the decision Sept. 5 following the university’s move to suspend Sigma Alpha Mu’s recognition in 2017 for violating alcohol rules and a subsequent investigation into hazing and behavioral issue reports at the fraternity from Penn State administrators.

“Our top priority is to create a healthy and safe environment for our members and to foster a culture of responsibility in our chapters,” said Sigma Alpha Mu Executive Director Andy Huston in a statement. “We simply will not tolerate such violations of policies, expectations, and values.”

Central to the fraternity’s chapter revocation is the battle over its chapter house, located at 329 E. Prospect Ave. in the borough of State College. Former undergraduate members of Sigma Alpha Mu still live in the Highlands neighborhood house, which violates a borough ordinance requiring chapters that operate a house in the borough to be recognized as a fraternity by the university.

Sigma Alpha Mu has used the house — owned by Mark Maloney doing business as Greek Housing Services — since 1998. In 1989, the zoning hearing board granted a special exception for the house to be used as a fraternity, the CDT reported. In 2010, the borough changed its zoning ordinance to reflect that a fraternity house’s designation must be tied to its recognition by the university.

Borough Planning Director Ed LeClear said last week the borough had to revoke the former Sigma Alpha Mu house’s zoning permit because their continued occupation of the house constituted “illegal land uses.” But the fraternity house owner appealed the permit revocation and the State College Zoning Hearing Board denied it, saying the property violated the borough’s zoning ordinance.

Greek Housing Services then filed an appeal in the Centre County Court of Common Pleas, and in November 2018, Centre County Judge Katherine Oliver reversed the zoning board’s decision, writing that the fraternity house fell under pre-existing nonconforming use. The borough appealed Oliver’s decision and the case is now in Commonwealth Court.

“In all honesty we have to wait to see what the court decides,” said LeClear. “Because there was a lot of issues put before the court during this process ... Judge Oliver really did not ... deal with most of the questions that were raised in the complaint.”

Despite the current court battle, LeClear said the borough is “not in a situation where we’re trying to kick people out of where they’re living.” They typically wait until a semester break or the summer to enforce the zoning ordinance.

“We’re not trying to zone these (fraternities) out of existence,” he said. “We just want to make sure that whoever is in (the house) is actually a recognized fraternity. The reason for that is that they’re part of some disciplinary structure, there’s some controls. It’s not just 50 folks living in a building without any kind of disciplinary system.”

Alpha Chi Rho fraternity was also suspended by Penn State in 2017 and the zoning hearing board determined 425 Property Association — which owns the house — violated the borough’s zoning ordinance by not operating as a “fraternity house” and not possessing a rental permit. Its alumni corporation took the borough to court over the use of its house, and the case is now in the Commonwealth Court.

If the Commonwealth Court rules that a fraternity house’s zoning is no longer tied to its university-designated status, LeClear said the borough will have to rethink its system of fraternity house designation. Or, they may choose to file an appeal in the Superior Court.

The borough is currently undergoing a major zoning rewrite, and the court’s determination could influence how the borough handles the new ordinance or “it may also drive the borough to do something earlier than the comprehensive (zoning) revision,” he said.

In a Penn State news release, the university said it supported “the borough’s efforts to sustain the ordinance.”

Even after Penn State suspended Sigma Alpha Mu, it continued to monitor the chapter’s activities, according to the release. After recently learning about “continuing behavioral issues at the chapter house that jeopardized the welfare of the community,” Penn State notified the fraternity’s international headquarters.

“We continue to encourage and foster the positive aspects of the fraternity and sorority experience, while working to minimize the risks that membership or participation in these groups sometimes poses,” said Damon Sims, vice president for Student Affairs at Penn State. “But in cases such as this one, when a suspended chapter continues to operate without University recognition, it is nearly impossible for the University to have sufficient influence to discourage the risks present.”

Sigma Alpha Mu has a history of complaints — criminal and civil — against it. Prothonotary records show six different criminal cases against the fraternity since 2003, all stemming from alcohol violations. In 2017, Sigma Alpha Mu’s president entered a guilty plea for a March 2016 incident in which the fraternity served two minors alcohol at a party, the CDT reported. The fraternity was fined $500 and had to perform 62 days of community service.

“If there isn’t that code of conduct from the university (recognition), we are concerned about chaos,” said LeClear.