Trinity Church

Trinity Episcopal Church on South Main Street in Geneva.

GENEVA — Trinity Episcopal Church and developer Mark McGroarty have cleared a legal hurdle that entwined two city agencies in their effort to redevelop the church into an inn, restaurant and events center.

With the decision, lawyers will now move onto the main legal issue: A request by South Main Street neighbors to nullify a city Zoning Board of Appeals decision granting Trinity a use variance that allows them to redevelop the historic South Main Street church.

Ontario County Court Judge Fred Reed ruled in February that the city Zoning Board of Appeals ZBA had jurisdiction to hear an appeal related to a Historic Districts and Structures Commission ruling rejecting the Trinity redevelopment project, and that the ZBA’s decision to overturn the HDSC “was made appropriately.”

In May, the commission ruled against the project by refusing to issue a certificate of appropriateness.

“Among our concerns are that the exterior appearance of the historic church and its 1810 rectory be preserved and that the project be compatible with the residential character of the surrounding area and the church property itself,” wrote S. Ford Weiskittel, chairman of the commission. “The proposed change would have a permanent significant effect on the character of the South Main Street Historic District.”

With that decision, Trinity’s only other option to move forward with the project was to appeal to the Zoning Board of Appeals, which had approved a use variance for the project.

The ZBA, which is being represented by Wendy Marsh of Geneva, a partner in the Syracuse law firm Hancock Estabrook, did just that in September, overruling the commission’s decision.

However, the commission then appealed the ZBA decision. Its attorney, Al Knauf, argued that HDSC was within its rights to deny a certificate of appropriateness for the Trinity project and that the ZBA did not have the legal authority to overrule the decision.

Additionally, neighbors suing the ZBA decision to issue a use variance for the Trinity project wanted HDSC added to its legal action.

Reed dismissed the arguments that the ZBA didn’t have the legal authority to overrule the historic districts commission.

In his ruling, Reed cited Geneva code: “Any person or persons jointly or severally aggrieved by a decision of the Historic District and Structures Commission which shall result in the failure of the Superintendent of Buildings and Zoning to issue a building permit shall have the right to appeal to the Zoning Board of Appeals for a variance as provided in this chapter and seek other remedies as may be provided in this chapter and seek such other remedies as may be provided for by this chapter or general law.”

Reed said Geneva City Council minutes from 1969 “clarifies that the HDSC’s role is restricted to consideration of the exterior appearance of structures in the district so as to preserve the historical character of structures in the district. HDSC therefore has no jurisdiction to consider the use of buildings in the area. It is clear HDSC exceeded its authority and basing its determination on factors that were appropriately determined already by the ZBA.”

McGroarty said he and Trinity “will continue to persevere against the small minority of people who do not wish to see the church preserved, renew a vacant historic property and bring new employment and tax dollars to the city of Geneva and its residents.”

Knauf expressed disappointment with the decision.

“We respectfully disagree with Judge Reed’s decision,” said Knauf. “The commission will consider whether to appeal.”

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