CUMBERLAND — A historic church just west of the Hancock County line is one step closer to being torn down to make way for a gas station and convenience store.
An Indianapolis hearing examiner gave Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle the nod Thursday afternoon during a hearing on the company’s request to have the site rezoned for commercial use.
Currently, the 101-year-old St. John’s United Church of Christ sits at the corner of U.S. 40 and German Church Road. While preservationists are fighting to preserve the building, congregants are looking to sell, saying the church is too outdated and in need of renovations they can’t afford.
Hearing examiner Rex Joseph’s favorable recommendation to rezone the site is the first step in a three-stage process needed for church officials to finalize the deal to sell the property to Giant Eagle, which plans to demolish the church.
Cumberland town officials said the church represents a gateway to the town and should be saved.
“This is really a case where the city (of Indianapolis) is interpreting the town’s comprehensive plan,” town manager Andrew Klinger said. “We don’t think auto-related usages are appropriate for that location.”
Church officials said they are relieved to get a favorable ruling, clearing the first hurdle toward handing off what they say has become a problem property.
“I thought both sides did a very good job in presenting their case,” the Rev. Jimmy Watson said. “At the end of the day, I guess they decided that there really wasn’t a compelling reason not to favor the rezoning.”
Town officials were hoping for a different outcome but said they knew the odds were against them.
“We kind of knew going into it that this was kind of an uphill battle,” Klinger said. “I thought we made some good arguments, but we’ll move on to the next phase.”
Town officials said they plan to file an appeal in hopes of gaining an opportunity to speak before the Metropolitan Development Commission on March 4.
The commission is set to vote on the variance during the meeting.
“We want the ability to continue the argument,” Klinger said.
The hearing examiner recommended granting Giant Eagle a zoning variance to construct a 6,100-square-foot building on the 4.8-acre site, noting the church’s expenses outpaced congregants’ ability to keep up.
“If the church can’t maintain it, and it’s going to take $750,000, … from my standpoint, you have to wonder where that $750,000 is going to come from,” Joseph told the large crowd, many of them church parishioners supporting the variance.
Giant Eagle operates the GetGo convenience stores in addition to its self-named supermarket brand.
Town officials have started exploring the possibility of purchasing the land themselves. However, church officials said it’s too late to go back.
“We’ve already got an offer on the table, and we are in contractual agreement with them,” Watson said. “The building is almost beyond repair. That really is a sad thing, and we’re all really sad about that.”
Church officials are in the process of building a smaller place of worship at the northwest corner of East Prospect Street and Carroll Road. A family donated the 50-acre tract to the church in the 1970s.
Indiana Landmarks supported saving the church. Its vice president of preservation services, Mark Dollase, said before Joseph’s decision that the granting of a variance would be a “death knell” for the building.
The Indiana Business Journal contributed to this story.