AUGUSTA — City councilors Thursday night approved a proposal to ban temporarily any new group and boarding homes or rooming houses in two major zoning districts in the city.

The vote was prompted by concerns the prominent St. Mark’s Episcopal Church property could change hands and become a homeless shelter.

Councilors voted 5-3 to enact a moratorium on any such developments of up to 180 days.

The issue drew strong feelings Thursday. Church officials said the moratorium would interfere with the efforts of St Mark’s Episcopal Church to sell its property, and prolong the financial burden of the $4,500 monthly cost of maintaining the property, money they said would be better spent on the church’s mission of helping people in need.

The Rev. Erik Karas, the priest in charge of St. Mark’s, also expressed concerns that the city, after the proposed 180-day moratorium, could enact zoning rules that would limit the uses of the property to those that only one potential bidder on the property, the quasi-municipal Augusta Housing Authority, would propose.

“I understand the need to clarify the zoning, but I do want the council to be aware of the consequences of that to us as a nonprofit organization in the city,” Karas said. “Because we’re in the process of trying to find new stewards for the property, and a moratorium will halt that process for us. Because none of those people will know if they’ll be able to do what they want to do with that property until it is settled. That’s a significant burden for our church.”

Residents of the west side neighborhood of numerous historic homes that abuts the church property, meanwhile, said the neighborhood is already home to several group homes and it may not be able to absorb more without harming the neighborhood.

Cheryl Clukey, a neighborhood resident, said there are already five group homes in her three-block area. She said she supports those group homes, and volunteers at St. Mark’s kitchen, but she is concerned about the potential effect of more group homes or similar facilities coming to that part of the city. She said a moratorium would provide time to clarify ordinance language and discuss the issue.

“I think a moratorium is due, to sit down and talk about this,” Clukey said. “Because I wonder how many group homes the neighborhood can absorb before it affects the neighborhood. It could impact the whole tenor of the neighborhood.”

The proposed 180-day moratorium was prompted by the concerns of some councilors that the prominent St. Mark’s Episcopal Church property could be sold and turned into a facility potentially providing food, shelter and other services to homeless and poor people. The property between Summer and Pleasant streets abuts a residential neighborhood and the city’s Lithgow Public Library, which is scheduled to re-open later this month after renovation.

The moratorium was sponsored by Ward 1 Councilor Linda Conti, whose ward includes the west side neighborhood. The church property includes the church as well as a historic home that served as its rectory, the former St. Mark’s Home, and a parish hall that provides space now for charitable organizations that give needy people, clothing and other essential items.

Church officials are looking to sell the church, the rectory and the parish hall, and they are seeking proposals from organizations to which they would give the former St. Mark’s Home, with an endowment of about $340,000, to continue the church’s mission of helping area people in need.

Conti and Mayor David Rollins have expressed concern because they heard that Bread of Life Ministries might be interested in acquiring the property and could move its homeless shelter and its soup kitchen to the site. They said the St. Mark’s property could end up with a new use that is incompatible with the neighborhood.

Conti proposed the moratorium to give city officials time to study the issue and clarify zoning language on group homes and boarding homes and rooming houses.

Bread of Life officials have declined to discuss whether the nonprofit organization has submitted a proposal for the St. Mark’s site, and they did not speak at Thursday’s City Council meeting.

Wednesday night, the Augusta Zoning Board of Appeals overturned a decision by Rob Overton, a city code enforcement officer, to deny a building permit for a homeless veterans’ house for women that is in the same neighborhood. Overton had deemed the Betsy Ann Ross House of Hope a rooming house, which under the city’s zoning is not allowed in the medium-density residential district where the house is located. The board overturned that decision, deciding the facility would not be a rooming house, and allowing the project, which could provide housing for up to nine women veterans and their children, to move forward. Board members said the city’s zoning language was unclear.

That veterans’ housing project is not likely to be affected by the moratorium, even though it is in one of the affected zones, because the building permit application was turned in before the moratorium was in effect.

Conti said some of her concern with the St. Mark’s property and the lack of clarity in city zoning rules is an organization could buy the property without knowing how it can use it.

“Under the existing laws, you may not be able to do what you think you can do,” she said. “That’s why there needs to be some discussions. It goes both ways. You might not get everything you want, but you may get more than you can do now under the existing rules.”

St. Marks officials issued a request July 11 for proposals from entities interested in the property, with applications due by Aug. 18, in an effort to sell the church property. The congregation no longer uses the church building for regular services. St. Mark’s parishioners moved their regular Sunday services last year, holding joint services with Prince of Peace Lutheran Church at that 209 Eastern Ave. church.

The ministry still offers, and plans to continue doing so up until the sale, Addie’s Attic Clothing Bank and Everyday Basics Essentials Pantry, which provides the needy with toiletries and other items, at the St. Mark’s parish hall at 9 Summer St., next to the church that stands between Pleasant and Summer streets.

Joseph Riddick, senior warden of St. Mark’s, said previously those services will continue after the sale, and the church is working with partners to try to find new locations for them.

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, with the deadline to submit an application Aug. 18, nor did he know what they each propose to do with the property.

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.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

kedwards@centralmaine.com

Twitter: @kedwardskj