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Church must close flea market

March 19, 2014
By MEL TOADVINE (mtoadvine@breezenewspapers.com) , Lehigh Acres Citizen

For the past four years, there has been a flea market on the parking lot of the First Community Congregation Church on Leeland Heights Blvd. But no more.

It has been ordered to shut down and church leaders are discussing what they might do because revenue generated from the rent to several vendors, has disappeared and that money went to help buy food to give to the needy in Lehigh and to provide hot meals one day a week.

Margaret Switzer, one of six elders of the church, said they were likely going to appeal the decision made by the county.

Article Photos

MEL TOADVINE
Margaret Switzer describing how much paper work she is handling regarding the closing of the flea market at the First Congregational Church in Lehigh.

Actually, the church was told to cease holding the flea markets on the three Saturdays a month because it violated policy in unincorporated areas of Lee County, she said.

Switzer said the church held three Saturdays open for the flea market in an agreement with the St. Rafael's Catholic Church, which holds a flea market on its campus one Saturday a month.

Already, vendors are showing up on a parking lot owned on Ashlar Avenue, owned by the Masonic Lodge. Vendors are setting up tables behind Burger King and the Wells Fargo Bank. Lisa Goehle, whose husband is Paul Goehle, the head of the Masonic Lodge, said vendors have been come to them and that they charge a small fee to allow them to use their parking lot.

The lot is in a commercial zone, surrounded by retail outlets and no homes while the lot at the First Community Congregational Church is surrounded by homes and is in a residential area where "yard sales" are permitted only twice a year and a flea market is the same as a yard sale.

Pastor Deb Frysinger said the church also a pumpkin sale in the fall and nobody has complained.

But she said there were complaints by at two people who she said complained about the "type of people" who attended the flea market. Others, she said may have complained about people parking on the street alongside the flea market.

She said a deputy from the Sheriff's Office in Lehigh told her the church was doing nothing wrong.

But the Sheriff's Office does not have jurisdiction over code enforcement. Those violations come under the direction of code enforcement officers who respond to complaints such as those directed at the church and its flea market.

A complaint was made to code enforcement on Jan. 17 by David Gibson, who complained that the church was "running a flea market every weekend now," according to records from code enforcement.

Officer Michael Ostrowski of code enforcement took the complaint. He did not return a call for a comment.

Frysinger said a few months ago, a woman who lives in the area near the church, was taking photos of vendors and their booths and tables and she wondered if she was a member of the media. She said she tried to approach the woman and ask if she could help her.

"She took a picture of me and said she was going to close our flea market down and shut down our ministries and our church," Frysinger said.

Sometimes there have been a dozen vendors at the site and other times on Saturdays, as many as 25 vendors.

"Our church served more than 112,000 people last year. We are the only church to provide a hot meal once a week to anyone who has no food," she said.

The church may also be the largest religious institution to give away food that it buys from the Harry Chapin Food Bank. Money from the vendors helped to pay for food from Chapin as well as other ministries of the church, Frysinger said.

Switzer, one of the elders, said the group is planning to meet to decide what action it may pursue. That could include appealing the decision before a judge, she said.

But to appeal, she said the church has to contact all the people who live within 500 feet of the church and hold a public hearing and present a thousand dollar check to the county which is not refundable to the church. Already, money is being collected to fund the effort.

She noted that the church could be regarded as a place of worship with special events, adding that McGregor Baptist Church on Colonial Blvd. in Lehigh has such a classification.

Frysinger said the church wants to get along with the people of Lehigh and wants everyone to work together on this situation.

Dahlke, who heads the Hands Ministry of the church, said people should forget the flea market and the pumpkin patch and realize the church is in Lehigh to help Lehigh folks.

Margaret Switzer, the elder, said she believes the action was taken out of spite by a couple of people and it could be jealousy over the progress of the church and she suggested that a couple of people "may be gunning for Pastor Deb Frysinger." She has been the pastor there since 2008.

Dahlke said what the church has been doing is out of love.

"We're for everyone, not for the glory of the church, but for the glory of God," she said.

 
 

 

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