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Denial threatens Altman's plea deal

West Mifflin rejects variance in zoning

Tuesday, June 04, 2002

By Steve Levin, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The proposed sale of Grace Christian Ministries' church and property fell apart last night.

A West Mifflin board denied a zoning variance, setting up the possibility that a plea-bargain reached previously by the Allegheny County district attorney's office with the church's former pastor, W. Michael Altman, may fall through.

"Now we're all up in the air," said Altman's attorney, Sumner L. Parker.

Parker still hopes to salvage the agreement whereby Altman would plead no contest at his sentencing hearing tomorrow in Common Pleas Court to nearly 100 counts of fraud and securities violations in exchange for a state prison sentence limited to four to eight years.

But that agreement rested in large part on the church property being sold and the 34 investors who lost $470,000 in Altman's investment scheme being paid back.

Last night, a spokesman for District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said the West Mifflin Zoning Board's decision would be reviewed, but if necessary, the county prosecutor was ready for trial.

"District Attorney Zappala has been prepared to go to trial on this matter since the arrest of the defendant [in November 2000], and that has not changed," said the spokesman, Mike Manko.

The zoning board voted 2-0 to deny the variance to Noah's Ark Christian Child Care Center, which occupies one end of the 11,000-square-foot Grace Christian Ministries church building at 612 Coal Road. The for-profit day care has been fully licensed by the state Department of Public Welfare to care for up to 104 children since it opened in September 1998.

But it is located in an area zoned R-2, or a medium-density residence district, which does not allow a for-profit business.

While the variance denial may close the day care, it also stymies, for the time being, the effort by the Second Baptist Church of Homestead to buy the Grace Christian Ministries property. The Homestead church planned to pay $950,000 for the building and its five acres of land, but it was counting on rental income from the day care.

Last night's ruling also prevents any of the three-dozen participants in Altman's failed investment scheme from recouping the $470,000 they lost.

"It's almost like a soap opera," said Kathy Jenkins, who along with her husband, daughter and son invested thousands of dollars in Altman's scheme.

Mike Adams, the zoning board's solicitor, said the board's decision was based on land use and zoning law.

"This is not the forum to resolve the monetary issue from the victims of that church," he said.

Immediately after last night's brief hearing -- a 2-0 vote by the zoning board without any discussion -- the attorney representing the day care vowed to appeal the decision to common pleas court.

"I'm disappointed," said Mark Christman, an attorney with Strassburger, McKenna, Gutnick and Porter, "but I can't say I'm surprised. At this point it appears we're going to have to go to the next level."

Christman's firm was appointed in November 2000 by Common Pleas Judge Raymond A. Novak to preserve the day care's assets for the benefit of Altman's defrauded investors.

The zoning board's ruling gave an unexpected boost to the efforts of West Mifflin contractor Jim Quinn to take over the Grace Christian Church property. Quinn, a lifelong West Mifflin resident whose office is at the base of Coal Road, built the Grace Christian Ministries building in 1998 and claims he is still owed $269,000 for the work.

He has said he wants to assume the property's debt and taxes -- estimated to be about $580,000 -- and repay the swindled investors, too.

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