AUGUSTA — Concern that some or all of a prominent church property between the city’s library and a west side residential neighborhood could become a homeless shelter and soup kitchen prompted city officials to propose a moratorium and changes to clarify the city’s zoning rules to prevent those types of uses in certain areas.

The moratorium would ban the development of any new group, boarding or rooming houses in two of the city’s zoning districts, including the district that encompasses the St. Mark’s Episcopal Church property. That includes the church itself; a historic home that served as the church’s rectory; the former St. Mark’s Home; and the church’s parish hall, which now provides space for food, clothing and other essential items, as well as a winter warming center.

The church is looking to sell the church, the rectory and the parish hall property. It is seeking proposals from organizations to which it would give the former St. Mark’s Home, with an endowment of roughly $340,000, to continue its mission of helping area people in need.

Mayor David Rollins and Ward 1 Councilor Linda Conti recently expressed concern, saying they heard Bread of Life Ministries has submitted a proposal for the property between Summer and Pleasant streets and, if it acquires some or all of the St. Mark’s site, could move its homeless shelter on Hospital Street, its soup kitchen on Water Street, or both, to the site.

Rollins said he thinks a homeless shelter and soup kitchen would neither be allowed there under the current zoning nor be compatible with the largely residential neighborhood or Lithgow Public Library, both of which the church property abuts. He said neighborhood residents have approached him with concern about the unconfirmed possibility of Bread of Life moving its temporary housing for homeless people, and soup kitchen for poor people, to the St. Mark’s site.

“There is angst and concern by people,” Rollins said Friday. “Nobody has told me directly what (Bread of Life is) going to do. I will speculate they could fold their whole operation in there, including the homeless shelter and soup kitchen. That’s a very concentrated situation, which I don’t believe meets city ordinance.”

John Richardson, executive director of Bread of Life Ministries in Augusta, declined to confirm whether Bread of Life has submitted a proposal for the St. Mark’s site, saying “it’s too early to make any comment” about the issue. He said he was sure multiple organizations probably are interested in the St. Mark’s property.

Rollins said he’d heard that both Bread of Life and the Augusta Housing Authority had made proposals for the St. Mark’s property.

Asked if Bread of Life or the Augusta Housing Authority had made such proposals, Joseph Riddick, senior warden of St. Mark’s, said the church “received a number of proposals, more than just those two, about half a dozen.”

He has some concerns of his own — about city officials potentially interfering in the church’s affairs and its effort to sell the property.

“I am concerned the City Council is going to scare people off by these political tactics,” Riddick said. “You have certain city councilors leading this campaign about St. Mark’s property, causing problems for the church. And it looks like there is an effort to derail the application process for possible use of the property.”

ZONING RULES

The church issued a request July 11 for proposals from entities interested in the property, with applications due by Aug. 18. Riddick said the church received about a half-dozen proposals for the property before the request for proposals was issued. He said the request was issued so potential bidders would be clear on what they should submit so their proposals can be evaluated against each other by church leaders. He said none of the proposals submitted in response to the request for proposals has yet been evaluated, nor did he know what they each propose to do with the property.

“The applications aren’t even due until Aug. 18, so we have no idea who is bidding on the property or what they’re proposing to do,” Riddick said.

He said church officials have sought to make it clear to any bidders they should check with city officials to see whether what they propose to do with the property is allowed under zoning rules.

The property is in a medium-density residential zoning district.

Amanda Bartlett, executive director of Augusta Housing Authority, confirmed the authority had made a proposal, involving creating affordable senior housing, for the St. Mark’s property before the formal request for proposals was issued. She couldn’t be reached to discuss details of that proposal Friday.

Last week Conti proposed changing the wording of some city zoning rules about group homes and social services to clarify, she said, that homeless shelters and rooming houses wouldn’t be allowed in the zoning district that includes the St. Mark’s property. She said the changes, if they were in place when St. Mark’s Home, which previously provided housing for up to 15 women, was still operating, they would have made that use illegal.

At-Large Councilor Dale McCormick said she’s heard there will be a proposal for a retirement home at the former St. Mark’s Home, which wouldn’t be allowed under Conti’s proposal. McCormick said she thus couldn’t support the proposed change.

Conti responded that the former use of St. Mark’s Home as a retirement home went out of business because it was no longer viable.

Matt Nazar, the city’s development director, said he doesn’t think a homeless shelter, unless it is licensed as a group home by the state, would be allowed under current zoning language. He said Conti’s proposed language was meant to clarify that, but he does not think it would change what is allowed there.

Some current uses of the property, including the Augusta Food Bank and Addie’s Attic clothing bank, are allowed there only because they are considered to be associated with the property’s main use as a religious facility. They wouldn’t be allowed as primary uses, were the church not on the same site, in that zone.

“The food bank, clothing bank, when they’re associated with the church and part of the church’s mission, they’re (allowed) as part of the religious use,” Nazar said. “When they become separated from the church, they’re considered social services and are not allowed (in that zone) as a primary use.”

The church property is across the street from the 8 Summer St. home that a nonprofit group bought with plans to convert it into a shelter for homeless female veterans. However, that project hit a roadblock earlier this month when the city denied an application for a building permit for it.

NEW LOCATION?

Rollins said it seems as though service-oriented nonprofit groups want to pick up big, older homes in the city, particularly in the west side neighborhood, which he said the city hopes will become a marquee neighborhood of the city.

Regarding the possibility of Bread of Life seeking to relocate its operations to the St. Mark’s property, Rollins said he’s concerned about “what we see going on on Water Street being transferred from Water Street to the library area.”

He said concerning behavior on Water Street he attributed primarily to clients of Bread of Life’s soup kitchen there has included people congregating and blocking stairways and business entrances, and at least one fistfight. He said some people won’t go to that part of the city because of that situation, and some business owners have complained about it, too.

“I’m not being insensitive to their clients, but at the same time, we wish their clients would be sensitive to the merchants on Water Street,” Rollins said. “There is certainly a need for their services,” he said, adding that it’s just a matter of where they should be provided.

Rollins said he’s interested in meeting with Bread of Life and other involved parties to talk about the situation, potentially including finding a different location for the soup kitchen other than the St. Mark’s property or the soup kitchen’s longtime Water Street location.

In the meantime, the City Council is likely to consider sending Conti’s proposal to change some wording of city zoning to clarify what is allowed at sites such as the St. Mark’s property to the Planning Board for a recommendation, and also to consider a moratorium on development of any new group, boarding or rooming houses in that zoning district, at Thursday’s council meeting.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj