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Claims by Sheetz, Elsa’s
The lawsuit filed Wednesday in Montgomery County Common Pleas Court accuses the Bethany Village retirement community and Epiphany church of “tortious interference” with business and contract relations, plus civil conspiracy. It argues the two groups worked to breach a valid contract.
The lawsuit also accuses the city of Centerville and City Council of substantive due process violations, saying the city deprived the plaintiffs of their property rights via “arbitrary and capricious actions” in the zoning process. The plaintiffs say that inflicted serious economic harm by limiting Sheetz’s ability to open its gas station and convenience store.
Elsa’s, Sheetz and the developer argue that the city, Epiphany and Bethany “acted with malice and/or aggravated and egregious fraud,” and that the plaintiffs are entitled to punitive damages. They are seeking compensatory damages in excess of $25,000, plus punitive damages, lost profits, attorney’s fees and court costs.
City, church, retirement community respond
Centerville Mayor Brooks Compton said the city “stands firm in its commitment to uphold the law and respect established zoning regulations.”
“The proposed development has generated passionate opinions on all sides,” Compton said. “As community leaders, our top priority remains serving the best interests of all Centerville residents and ensuring businesses remain safe and thriving.”
Epiphany Lutheran Church said it will continue to combat the project.
“Epiphany Lutheran Church has not changed its view of the inappropriate and dangerous nature of this development in this location, and despite Sheetz’s, Elsa’s and Morse Road Development’s intimidation, we will not back down from its opposition,” Epiphany said. “The Church will not have any further public comment on the litigation filed by Sheetz, Elsa’s, and Morse Road Development against Epiphany for compensatory and punitive damages.”
Bethany Village and its owner, not-for-profit corporation Graceworks Lutheran Services, are “not interested in a contentious fight,” said spokeswoman Jackie D’Aurora.
“We are simply raising our hand on behalf of our residents,” D’Aurora said in a statement Thursday. “The safety of the 700 residents and the 600 employees at Bethany Village, remains our top concern. We support our resident opposition to the development at this specific location, which we believe is not appropriate.”
Background, other details
The lawsuit is the latest development in an ongoing battle regarding the future of the Far Hills Avenue site.
The city of Centerville’s Planning Commission in August approved a plan that would have allowed Sheetz to construct its facility on the site.
Julie Reuning-Scherer, who serves as Epiphany’s senior pastor, said in October that the church “raised the alarm over Sheetz’s intention to sell alcohol, tobacco, and CBD products within 500 feet of a school and church, and increased crime statistics at 24-hour gas stations.”
The lawsuit says for 18 years until 2017, Epiphany church owned the site where the Elsa’s restaurant is located and collected lease payments, profiting from Elsa’s late-night sale of alcohol for on-site consumption without voicing any concerns.
After objections from Epiphany and others, Centerville City Council in late October rejected Sheetz’s plans to construct the new location.
The Sheetz/Elsa’s lawsuit also argues that Centerville City Council Member Bill Serr, a retired CEO of Bethany Village, had “a duty to abstain from voting” in the matter because of his “inherent conflict of interest.” Serr voted to reverse the Planning Commission’s approval.
The next month, Sheetz, developer Skilken Gold and the Elsa’s owners filed an administrative appeal against the city’s decision in Montgomery County Common Pleas Court. That legal action is still pending.
But the church decided not to wait for that outcome and last month launched two ballot initiatives that would block carryout alcohol sales at the site. Voters in the precinct in question will decide that issue in the March 19 election.
Jason Hemmert said his family has served Centerville customers at the Elsa’s Far Hills site for more than 40 years, but that they considered closing it and opening a smaller site when his brother Justin died in 2020. Hemmert said Elsa’s ownership became impressed with Sheetz, calling them a good, family-operated company that would “make a positive difference in Centerville.”
“Elsa’s wants to serve the community for years to come,” Hemmert said. “We hope that people will stand up and oppose the type of conduct carried out by Epiphany and Bethany Village over the past couple of years.”
Hemmert called Epiphany and Bethany’s role in the ballot issues a very new development.
“The church and retirement community never expressed concern over alcohol being served at our restaurant in the 40-plus years that we’ve been neighbors — even when the church was our landlord,” Hemmert said.