MorningStar leaders stand firm in quest to save Heritage Tower in York County

MorningStar Fellowship Church can’t do anything with the 21-story tower it owns, leaders say. But they’re not giving up.

Church leaders spoke out Thursday afternoon on why they filed a lawsuit against York County.

“We see no scenario where we’re going to quit,” said Rick Joyner, MorningStar president.

The tower would have been completed long ago, said MorningStar Executive Vice President David Yarnes.

“We feel like we’re fighting for a principal that’s worth fighting for,” Yarnes said.

The church filed a lawsuit earlier this month against York County and two past county leaders for what church leaders say is religious discrimination. The church claims county leaders have been hostile toward attempts to finish construction on Heritage Tower.

Efforts to obtain comment Thursday from the county were unsuccessful.

The tower, a holdover from the Heritage USA property made famous by Jim Bakker and his PTL ministry in the 1980s, has been the focus of legal battles between MorningStar and the county for several years. MorningStar filed the discrimination suit after obtaining emails from past county leaders that church leaders say show an interest in tearing down the tower rather than allowing its completion.

The ongoing legal issues have made funding impossible since the county put the tower in default. MorningStar officials can go in the tower now, but can’t get permits even for upkeep work, the leaders say. If the county would allow construction permits, they say, the tower could be complete in about two years. Had it not put the tower in default previously, Yarnes said the tower would now be complete.

“We’d have been done long ago,” he said.

Plans for the tower include 500 hotel rooms and 200 units of senior housing. Some of the space in the 500,000-square-foot building MorningStar operates in now were converted to the same type of units as the church has waited on the tower. Those units have a waiting list, leaders say.

Joyner is confident the tower still can be built, and would get financing if the county allows work to be done.

“Inside it’s an incredibly built, sound structure,” Joyner said.

Church leaders say they are confused by the tower issue. They said county permitting staff has been good to work with on the hundreds of projects done throughout the rest of the MorningStar property.

The tower is a different story.

Church leaders also understand community concern with the tower, which has patches of bricks missing on the outside and is surrounded by a fence.

“Cosmetically, it looks bad,” Joyner said. “We understand that. It looks worse to us than anybody.”

Church leaders believe, as they allege in the suit, the county has unfairly associated them with the former PTL, or Praise the Lord, ministry.

“Guilt by association,” Joyner said. “There’s some wounds from the past.”

Joyner said the county met with a federal mediator and has tried to work with the county.

“We went the extra 50 miles,” he said. “We did everything we could to try to work this out.”

The church sees the tower, with its senior focus, as a spiritual issue -- caring for older residents a clear mandate from scripture. MorningStar leaders hope the federal discrimination suit will move faster than another longstanding one with the county, but they say they believe current county leaders are acting in line with the past.

“They were never intending to let us finish that tower,” Joyner said. “We think that is a violation of the law and of our constitutional rights. We think the evidence is pretty clear.”

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