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State College Goes To Court Again To Shut Down Former Fraternity House

State College has taken new legal action in a renewed attempt to shut down a former Penn State fraternity that has long been a source of concern for borough and university officials.

The rental property at 329 E. Prospect Ave. was home to the former Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity chapter, which lost university recognition in 2017 and had its charter revoked from its national organization in 2019. The borough contends the house continues to operate as if it were a fraternity in violation of the zoning code.

The State College Zoning Hearing Board previously ruled that the house was in violation because the zoning code requires an occupying fraternity to have university recognition to operate as a fraternity house. When a fraternity loses recognition, the board concluded, it loses its claim to operate as a fraternity house.

In 2018, a Centre County judge overturned that decision, a ruling later upheld by Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court. When Sigma Alpha Mu began operating at the house in 1989, the zoning stated a fraternity had to be “affiliated” with Penn State. It wasn’t until 2010 that the code was changed to specify a fraternity must be “recognized” by the university and the more restrictive definition couldn’t be applied to fraternities that were operating before the change, the courts ruled.

In a new filing in Centre County Court of Common Pleas on Friday, borough solicitor Terry Williams wrote that “it is apparent that the property is not being occupied by a fraternity,” even as defined by the code as it was in 1989, and that it continues to operate without proper zoning and licensing.

The president of the corporation that owns the property, identified in the complaint as Mark Maloney, also has provided no verification that a fraternity occupies the property despite requests from the borough, Williams wrote.

Instead, according to the filing, the collection of individuals living there constitutes a rooming house, which is not a permitted use in the property’s R-2 zoning.

Penn State initially suspended Sigma Alpha Mu four years ago for multiple violations of alcohol policies, and in the years since university and borough officials have said the house has been a persistent source of trouble that led to the national organization revoking its charter.

In 2020, police and ordinance enforcement responded to at least 17 incidents at the property, according to the filing. Those allegations included fights allegations, underage drinking, noise violations, bottles, and other items being thrown through windows, violations of the borough’s COVID-19 gathering ordinance, an intoxicated resident falling out of a second-floor window and requiring emergency room treatment, and an underage student being found “highly intoxicated” on the property and taken to the hospital.

In a message last fall, Penn State Vice President for Student Affairs Damon Sims and Borough Manager Tom Fountaine discourage students from affiliating with the group or visiting the house because of an ongoing “pattern of behavior that is troubling and has not stopped despite the continuing efforts of local police and university authorities.”

Sims and Fountaine said they had never before “issued a warning of this nature, which should indicate the seriousness of the alleged behaviors occurring at this property.”

Williams wrote in the new filing that “the collective nature of the occupancy of the property constitutes a public nuisance and general threat to the health, welfare and wellbeing of the community at large.”

The borough is seeking an order prohibiting the tenants, Maloney, and the corporation from occupying the property until they have applied for and obtained appropriate zoning, code, and licensing to house a fraternity or have received approval to convert the property to another permitted use.

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About the Author

Geoff Rushton (StateCollege.com)

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for StateCollege.com. Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.

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