COAL TOWNSHIP — The owner of the former C.Q. McWilliams Stone House along Route 54 in Coal Township decided to fight a decision from the Coal Township Uniform Construction Code (UCC) that denied her an exemption to reopen the historic building as a business.
Mary Lenig, who has been working to restore the property near the Roaring Creek Tract of Weiser State Forest that she purchased on May 17, 2018, filed through her attorney Joseph Michetti, of Sunbury, a notice of appeal in Northumberland County Court. Lenig argues the 210-year-old, 3,000-square-foot property on 10 acres of land deserves to be re-opened to the public.
“I don’t feel like anyone owns the house, I feel like it belongs to the public and those who have a strong appreciation for history,” she said. “I’m just the caretaker. My purchase was with my heart, it wasn’t with my head.”
It was originally built in 1810 as a tavern and stagecoach stop by John Gilger on the Centre Turnpike. After a fire destroyed the original structure, Gilger rebuilt it with stone. Over the years, additions have been made and the site changed functions but has always been considered commercial, argued Lenig.
At some point, C.Q. McWilliams, the founder of Roaring Spring Water Company, owned the home. Roaring Creek eventually was bought out by Aqua and plant operators next to the property used the building as a meeting place until it was put up for sale about five years ago. The house fell into blight, the front porch was crumbling, the roof was leaking and the pipes burst, Lenig said.
“Every time I drove by the house I would want to cry,” said Lenig. “You see the house falling apart. It’s such an amazing house and the history is mind-boggling.”
Lenig said she spent “an insane amount of money and time” restoring the home, rebuilding the porch, fixing the plumbing and exposing the original wood and stone inside and outside the home. She brought it to the township UCC board to apply for an exemption and occupancy permit to open the building as a business — a public rental space, tavern, restaurant and tourist attraction — to cover the costs of maintaining it.
She said she should be granted an exemption due to the historic nature of the building because the building was constructed before 1927, deeming it uncertified. The building should be grandfathered in and opened to the public, she said.
Lenig said the township’s third-party inspector wanted her to do six pages worth of intense changes, but she had a different inspector check the house out and was told she only needed two updates related to handicapped-accessible entrances. She vowed never to cover up the walls or the floors again.
The township rejected her requests and appeals four times, the last time on Dec. 20.
This request, according to a letter sent to Lenig on Dec. 20, was denied because under the Pennsylvania Uniform Construction Code (PAUC), “an uncertified building that was built before April 27, 1927, is deemed legally occupied until the owner proposes to renovate, add an addition, alter or change the occupancy to the building. The renovation, addition, alteration or change in occupancy must comply with the Uniform Construction Code.”
Secondly, Lenig’s appeal to exceptions based on historic nature was denied because it is considered residential, not classified by a federal or local government authority or commission as a historic site and parts of the building are unsafe, according to the township.
The UCC Appeals Board consists of Gerard Waugh III, Russell Feese and George Zarick. Attorney James Bathgate, of Sunbury, represented the township UCC board in the appeal in county court.
Township Manager Robert Slaby said the township would not have any additional comment.
“Most people are running from Coal Township,” said Lenig. “This is why we should be willing to embrace anyone trying to lift Coal Township up.”
The property is listed as one with historic value by the Northumberland County Planning Commission in a 1977 report titled “Historical Perception into the Future,” according to Northumberland County Historical Society President Cindy Inkrote.
It was remodeled once in 1959, but still maintains many of its original features, according to the report.
“I think it’s really important to keep this property as close to original as possible,” said Inkrote. “Any time you renovate, you lose integrity and you’re just weakening the overall historical value of the property.”
Inkrote said it was her understanding that the structure did not have extensive renovations.
Lenig’s progress can be followed on the Facebook page “Friends of Olde Stone.”
Supporters can contribute to the legal costs at https://www.gofundme.com/f/friends-of-olde-stone?fbclid=IwAR26JzmXH66OuMQuvas1NtD6-YlBOIuuVxP_AY9TMf4CyxWrA48q0C_wIHU.
The GoFundMe had raised $1,000 toward a $10,000 goal as of Tuesday.