Officials of Lexington's Vineyard Community Church confirmed Monday they have canceled efforts to buy the old Julia R. Ewan Elementary School property, saying they were surprised by the level of neighborhood opposition and "sincerely regret" any divisions their plan has caused.
Lead pastor Kevin Clark said officials decided to drop their plans Friday, after Vineyard received a report from the Lexington Board of Adjustment staff that recommended approval of a conditional use permit for the church to locate at J.R. Ewan, subject to some restrictions.
The restrictions, some of which were requested by neighborhood residents, would have limited church membership, hindered outdoor activities and prohibited such things as routine food services for the homeless.
"We felt it was not only the community, but the city that was going to make it hard for us," Clark said. "We felt that we didn't have the money to keep fighting, and the wisest thing for us was to pull the plug."
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Shortly after Vineyard's announcement at a news conference Monday, Lexington developer Phil Holoubek confirmed he is interested in J.R. Ewan, and probably will make an offer on it this week for about $1.5 million. Holoubek said he wants to preserve the school and convert classrooms into high-end condominiums for young professionals.
"We've made offers on it before and were turned down," he said. "We will likely make another offer this week."
The school on Henry Clay Boulevard is owned by businessman Bill Meade, who bought it for $1.2 million at public auction in April 2009, after the Fayette County Schools declared it surplus property.
Two organizations pursued the property before Vineyard. Creation Kingdom Fairway LLC, which operates day care facilities, and Good Shepherd Day School both tried to buy J.R. Ewan, but eventually dropped out. Vineyard secured financing and sought city approval but ran into sharp opposition from the Fairway neighborhood.
Yard signs opposing Vineyard appeared soon after the church announced its plans in early July. Residents raised objections about parking and traffic, and some contended Vineyard wouldn't fit the community. The church has several programs for the poor and houses an outreach ministry for motorcycle riders.
Clark said Vineyard officials were surprised by the opposition.
"We knew there would be some level of resistance, but we had no clue," he said Monday. "Had we known there would be this much resistance, I don't know that we would have pursued it."
Clark said Vineyard pushed ahead "even after the signs went up," because some community residents told church leaders they would be welcome.
One such resident, Gretchen McGregor, said Monday she thought the church would have been "a good fit for the neighborhood."
Clark said Vineyard hoped things would change over time. "But it just didn't," he said.
Clark said he was told recently that 80 percent of the neighborhood's residents had signed a petition opposing Vineyard, although he added he'd never actually seen the petition.
Valeria Askren, president of the Fairway Neighborhood Association, said Monday residents are disappointed that the purchase fell through. She said they had hoped to "come up with some compromises in terms of how we could get a very active church to fit into a very quiet neighborhood."
"Both the city and the neighborhood felt we needed assurances we would still be able to retain our neighborhood," she said. "Unfortunately, the church did not feel they could meet the restrictions the city was going impose. It's sad."
She acknowledged the issue has caused strains in the neighborhood.
"Emotions are high," Askren said. "We have to do some healing."