READING, Pa. - A historic mansion in the Hampden Heights section of Reading could soon be used as a seminary.
The Reading Zoning Hearing Board on Wednesday heard a request from Queen of All Saints Chapel Inc., Brooksville, Florida, for zoning variances to use the Caum Home, 1711 Hampden Boulevard, as a seminary to house up to 37 seminarians and priests.
The building, which is also known as the William Bitting Mansion, was built as a private residence in 1934, but it was later owned and operated by the Topton Lutheran Home for about 60 years.
It is currently owned by David and Dawn Leeland, who previously received zoning approval for a bed and breakfast.
The site was a matter of contention for years after Orange Stones, a subsidiary of Firetree Inc, Williamsport, purchased the property in 2004 and attempted to obtain zoning relief to establish a drug and alcohol treatment center.
Residents of Hampden Heights fought Orange Stones every step of the way until it sold the property to Leeland in 2016.
In his quest for zoning for a bed and breakfast, Leeland also wanted to establish the site as a wedding venue, which the residents also opposed.
The property is in an R-1 residential zoning district, as well as The Heights Conservation District.
A variance is needed to locate a seminary in the building, and a parking variance is needed because the zoning ordinance requires one off-street space for every two beds.
The property would need 19 spaces, but currently has only 13.
Bishop Donald Sanborn, who founded the seminary as a corporation in 1989, said because of a significant growth in the number of incoming seminarians, he wants to move the seminary to Reading from Florida and use the Brooksville property as a parish and a school.
"I had to find a place that was suitable and is near a major airport, because we do a lot of travel around the country," Sanborn said. "This fit the bill. It is a very stately building in a quiet neighborhood and looks like it should be a seminary."
Sanborn said the seminarians follow traditional rules and observe silence for a majority of the time.
Sanborn's corporation and seminary are not recognized by the main-stream Roman Catholic Church, even though it claims to train priests according to the traditions prior to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
It's website states: "By training priests in this manner, the seminary hopes to contribute to the solution to the problem of the nearly universal disintegration of Catholic faith, morals, discipline and liturgy which the Second Vatican Council has caused."
Sanborn said the seminary will not be open to the public, as his intention will be to establish a parish church elsewhere in the Reading area.
In an effort to mitigate objections from the neighbors, Sanborn held a meet-and-greet in July, which 10 neighbors attended to discuss the proposed use.
"There was no negative feedback," he said. "No one said they would oppose this."
But Laurinda J. Alcorn, a resident of Alsace Road, raised concerns about the nonprofit status of the organization and questioned how it would affect property taxes in the area.
Zoning board solicitor Steve Price said if the property received an exemption from paying property taxes, that will not have any effect on neighboring property tax assessments.
Alcorn said not enough information was given on the potential tax exemption for the organization and said her husband is very much against the proposed use.
Sanborn said he will apply for tax exemption in Pennsylvania, as well as in Reading.
Linda A. Kelleher, president of the College Heights Community Council and the city clerk, said her organization does not oppose the use, but asked for conditions to include seeking permits from the city and from the Historical Architectural Review Board before making any changes to the exterior of the property or before installing any crosses or religious symbols.
Douglas Haring, a real estate appraiser, testified that the property requires a lot of maintenance and that very few individuals or organizations could afford to occupy and maintain the building.
"If it fell into abandonment, it wouldn't take long for it to become a blight on the neighborhood," Haring said. "There has been a lot of turmoil over this property over the past 10 years, and if used as a seminary, that will take away all of the question marks of what will happen to this property in the future."
Alsace Road residents Jack and Patricia Keith said they are not opposed to the use, but requested that no additional off-street parking be allowed.
The board plans to render a decision on Oct. 14.