Old Refuge Chapel declared ‘unsafe to occupy’

Fire marshal said ‘commercial’ activity in old chapel did not have valid plan review.

The Alaska Fire Marshal’s office last week determined the former Refuge Chapel to be “unsafe to occupy” after receiving complaints over manufacturing happening in the daylight basement of the building on Pioneer Avenue. Some people have been living in the old chapel, and had to move out.

According to state records, Paul Hueper, a lieutenant gubernatorial candidate, and his wife, Marilyn Hueper, directed or used to direct Refuge Chapel.

Paul Hueper is a Republican Party candidate for lieutenant governor with running mate Rep. Chris Kurka. Marilyn Hueper gained national attention after the FBI in April served a warrant on and raided the Hueper home and business, alleging she matched the description of a woman photographed taking Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s laptop during the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot — a case of mistaken identity shown when the FBI later arrested a New York woman for that crime.

The former Refuge Chapel space, which encompasses the lower-level area known as “the Puffin’s Nest, ” is located at 397 E. Pioneer Ave., Suite 2, and is part of the Rookery Condominiums, a four-unit business condominium development. The “unsafe to occupy” determination does not affect the three other units — a restaurant, offices and a retail store — located upstairs at street level.

According to a press release from the Alaska Department of Public Safety, the fire marshal’s office received a complaint about the Refuge Chapel space on May 24. On May 25, deputy state fire marshals inspected the structure “and determined that one of the suites in the building was operating without a valid plan review for the type of commercial activity that was being conducted,” according to the press release.

Homer Volunteer Fire Department Chief Mark Kirko said he and an HFVD deputy chief visited the Refuge Chapel area on May 25 with the deputy fire marshal. Kirko said the city had received complaints that someone in the Refuge Chapel area had cut a large hole in the south wall and put up a sliding barn door. Workers in the chapel area were producing some sort of manufactured wall system for houses, he said. The door cut in the wall did not have a header, or a beam to carry the weight over a span, Kirko said. Because the city does not have authority in enforcing fire and safety codes, Kirko referred the complainants to the fire marshal’s office.

David Briggs, owner of Homer Truffle Company upstairs from the Refuge Chapel space, said Paul Hueper has been building sections of small homes there. The construction activity in moving the sections also has caused the building to shake, he said.

When a facility changes its use, the owners should file for a change of occupancy with the State Fire Marshal’s office, Kirko said. For example, when the Homer Police Department moved out of the old police station near the fire hall and transfered it to the fire department, the fire department had to get a change of occupancy for it.

“Anytime a building changes its use, they need to go through the fire marshal’s office to get an occupancy change,” Kirko said.

On May 13, through their Anchorage lawyer, Susan Badten, the Rookery Condominiums Inc. Association, which includes other business owners in the building, delivered to Marilyn Hueper a cease-and-desist letter giving the Huepers until midnight May 23 to address health and safety and nuisance violations alleged in the letter. Those alleged violations include removing a 20-foot-by-20-foot section of the exterior wall, lessening support of upstairs units; unsafe electrical practices; storing drums of flammable material; spraying insulation and conducting construction without adequate ventilation; driving a forklift in the downstairs unit; causing disruptive noise; and allowing people to live in the suite. The letter also cited state law which says a condo unit owner can only make alterations to a unit that do not alter the structural integrity of the building.

In response to email questions from the Homer News, Paul Hueper wrote of the cease-and-desist letter, “If there are any guideline needs presented in letter or any format, those would of course be dealt with.”

Austin McDaniel, communications director for the Department of Public Safety, said last Friday a report was still being written by the fire marshal’s office and he did not know the exact commercial activity said to be done there. To comply with state laws, the owners or occupants would need to complete a plan review with the fire marshal’s office, he said.

The most recent corporate reports for Refuge Chapel with the Alaska Division of Corporations show Marilyn Hueper as president, Paul Hueper as vice president and treasurer, and Lynn Lowe as secretary, with all three also being directors.

On March 18, 2022, the Alaska Commissioner of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development issued an involuntary dissolution or revocation of Refuge Chapel for failure to either file a biennial report, pay biennial report fees, maintain a registered agent, notify the office of any change to its registered agent, or pay associated statement of change fees. The certificate said Refuge Chapel ceased to exist as of March 18.

Darren Williams, the former pastor of Refuge Chapel, said in a phone interview Refuge Chapel bought the building in 2005, and in 2013 turned it into a business condominium. It sold other units in the building to help pay off the mortgage. Williams resigned as pastor in 2019 after his wife Lorraine died. He said that under the church’s bylaws and vision, if Refuge Chapel ceased to operate as a church, its assets are supposed to be transferred to another nonprofit.

According to Kenai Peninsula Borough Lead Assessor Scott Romain, the Puffin’s Nest is owned by the Refuge Chapel, and as a nonprofit does not pay property taxes. He confirmed that the building is a business condominium, and that the other three units are taxable.

Kirko and Homer Police Chief Mark Robl said before the “unsafe to occupy” determination was made, from three to four people lived there. In photos taken on May 27, people could be seen moving personal possessions out of the building. Briggs also said he saw people living there. Robl said over the weekend police visited the former Refuge Chapel space to warn a person not to live in the space because it was unsafe. Kirko said some of the rooms did not have windows with proper egress to the outside.

In response to a question of if anyone lived on the premises, Hueper wrote, “In light of the ongoing housing shortages in Homer, converting the space to make it appropriate for housing would be a great idea and would involve consulting the fire marshal’s office for safety guidelines etc.”

Hueper also wrote that he was not aware of any commercial operation going on in the basement suite and that the fire marshal had not provided any proof of any commercial operation. In response to a question about if he planned to correct the issues raised by the fire marshal, Hueper responded, “The space is private and used only for non-commercial purposes.”

In response to a question about Hueper’s relationship to the space or if he owns or rents it, he responded, “It is a private use space only.”

In response to a question about who owned the space, if the Refuge Chapel still owned it, and who are the current board members of the chapel, he responded, “It is a private use space only.”

In response to a question about the legal status of Refuge Chapel as a corporation or who now legally owns the suite, Hueper responded, “It is a private use space only.”

Romain said that as part of routine audits of nonprofits that have tax-exempt status, an audit is planned in October or November to review Refuge Chapel’s nonprofit status.

Kirko said state fire safety rules aren’t saying a business or nonprofit can’t operate.

“It’s basically life safety code to make sure everyone is covered under that umbrella of safety,” he said. “I understand these things come with a different set of guidelines and different rules. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time it’s a safety factor for why those things exist.”

Reach Michael Armstrong at marmstrong@homernews.com.

The south side of 397 E. Pioneer Avenue as seen on Friday, May 27, 2022. The barn door to the right was cut into the wall of the former Refuge Chapel, a modifcation other tenants of the building claimed had been done in violation of the business condominium association rules. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)

The south side of 397 E. Pioneer Avenue as seen on Friday, May 27, 2022. The barn door to the right was cut into the wall of the former Refuge Chapel, a modifcation other tenants of the building claimed had been done in violation of the business condominium association rules. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)