Hatfield Township residents concerned about church on Bishop tract

A log home dating from the mid-1700s was uncovered on the Hatfield land three years ago when a demolition crew began peeling the facade's outer layer. Now there is a move to preserve it.
A log home dating from the mid-1700s was uncovered on the Hatfield land three years ago when a demolition crew began peeling the facade's outer layer. Now there is a move to preserve it. (LOU FARRELL)
Posted: June 30, 2014

For decades farmers have tended the land on the Bishop Tract in Hatfield Township, open space since it was sold by a land speculator 271 years ago.

The acres along Orvilla Road in Montgomery County produced fruits and vegetables. An old silo and farmhouse still stand.

But Keystone Fellowship Montgomeryville, a growing church in Montgomery Township, has plans for the property that would transform the 43-acre landscape. It is a potential change that worries some residents and township officials.

They are concerned about the potential loss of open space, about increased traffic, and the fate of the house, whose history recently was uncovered, literally.

"We have nothing against a church or what a church can do to benefit a community," said Cindy Bourgeois, who lives near the parcel. "We are just dismayed about the church's plans to put a fairly large environmental footprint on the property."

That footprint would be a sanctuary large enough for a church that has drawn an average of 400 people to its two Sunday morning services. Although only sketch plans have been discussed with township officials, the church expects to include offices and classrooms, said Tracey Somerville, a spokeswoman for the congregation.

The church also plans to donate seven acres to the township, a parcel that would connect with the adjacent School Road Park.

"We want to be part of that community and give something to the community as opposed to taking something from it," Somerville said. "We want to add something good."

Before the church can proceed, congregation officials must obtain a zoning change for the parcel - shifting the permitted land use from light industrial to institutional.

A formal presentation of the church's plans is scheduled for a meeting of the Board of Commissioners on July 23. The board might vote on the proposed zoning change at a meeting planned for Aug. 27.

Keystone Fellowship, which purchased the land in 2008, is a 14-year-old congregation that has outgrown its Montgomery Township church. The congregation has two other branches, one meeting in Skippack, and the other at the Montgomeryville location, which is scheduled to move to Fort Washington soon.

The proposed new building would be set back from the street in a location that would be barely visible from Orvilla Road, Somerville said. At least 600 parking spaces have been proposed, township officials say.

But concerns about open space remain in a community that values its stretches of country road. Water runoff and traffic congestion on the two-lane Orvilla Road are also concerns, residents say.

Somerville calls the issues "legitimate" ones that the church's team of engineers is grappling with so that the proposed new building "doesn't create a hardship" for residents.

Still, Commissioner Scott Brown says he is opposed to the zoning change, and wants the parcel to remain green. The tract, owned for decades by the Bishop family and sold to the church, was targeted for open space in township plans developed in the mid-1990s and in 2005 but was never acquired, Brown said.

The area "is a view into our past and connects to our farming history," Brown said.

A significant find

Three years ago, that history became an even bigger influence on the parcel's fate.

The house on the property had been slated for demolition. Then, Mike Hart, of Hartland Demolition & Restoration, began to peel back the building's outer layer.

Underneath, Hart found rows of logs that were "in pretty decent condition," he said. The structure, research revealed, actually is an old log home dating to the mid-1700s.

Historian Joel Alderfer, collections manager of the Mennonite Heritage Center in Harleysville, called the two-story building "significant."

The property belonged to the Rev. John Funk, who with his relative Christian Funk, were leaders of the Funkites, a group that broke off from the Mennonites over the Revolutionary War.

As pacifists, Mennonites would not fight in militias or swear their allegiances, Alderfer said. The Funkites supported the new government but retained their pacifist beliefs.

"It is entirely possible that the Funkites would have met for worship" in the log house, Alderfer said. The group later met across Orvilla Road in the group's first official gathering place in the area, the Frick's Meetinghouse. John Funk is buried in the meetinghouse cemetery.

Eminent domain

Neighbor Lou Farrell wants to see the house preserved at its current location, forming the center of what could be a Hatfield Township historic site.

Farrell is encouraging the township to buy the property from the church and preserve the open space - and the house.

Township officials discussed buying the property with the Bishop family around the time the parcel was targeted for open space in 2005, said Commissioner Bob Rodgers, who represents the district where the church would be built. "But for whatever reason the board decided not to," Rodgers said.

The township earlier had acquired a portion of the Bishop property through eminent domain. Hatfield officials obtained 10 acres and used it to add on to School Road Park, Rodgers said.

"I don't think [the Bishops] were real happy," Rodgers said.

The family later sold to Keystone Fellowship.

Church officials say they would preserve the house and are consulting with an expert about "the options" for preservation, Somerville said.

Rodgers is waiting to hear the church's formal plan before making a decision, he said.

"I'm not interested in trying to deny them if they have a good plan," Rodgers said. "If somebody else bought the property, they could build a truck terminal."

The final zoning decision will be based on what the board determines is "the best use of the property and the best for the community," said Township Manager Aaron Bibro, "and that [decision] is entirely subjective."


kholmes@phillynews.com

610-313-8211

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