AUGUSTA — City councilors on Thursday approved a moratorium banning any new group, boarding or rooming homes in two of the city’s major zoning districts for up to 180 days, a move spurred by west side residents who are anxious about the future use of the St. Mark’s Episcopal Church property that is currently for sale.

The moratorium was prompted by some council members’ concerns that the property could end up in the hands of an organization that might use some of the substantial property as a homeless shelter.

Mayor David Rollins said neighborhood residents have expressed angst and fear the property could be used, by a new owner, in a way that is not compatible with their neighborhood. But St. Mark’s officials said they are concerned the city’s actions could interfere with their efforts to sell the property.

Rollins said it’s time for all sides to talk about appropriate future uses at the site.

“We’ve heard general speculation and angst from people who live in the neighborhood who fear incompatible uses,” he said. “That is legitimate. And I think your (church) concerns are legitimate. There is consensus here somewhere. But discussing it on Facebook or talking about it at the coffee shop isn’t going to get us there. I look forward to getting together with you, because this is a big deal.”

Ward 1 Councilor Linda Conti, Rollins, and Stephen Langsdorf, city attorney, said the moratorium wasn’t written to prevent a boarding, group, or rooming home from being located on the St. Mark’s site and is simply meant to give city officials time to clarify vague zoning ordinance definitions.

Following nearly two hours of debate, councilors voted 5-3 late Thursday to enact a moratorium of up to 180 days, banning the issuance of all permits or Planning Board review of any proposed new group, boarding, or rooming homes in the city’s Business, Professional, and Institutional, and Medium Density Residential zoning districts.

St. Mark’s officials said the moratorium will interfere with the church’s efforts to get rid of the property, which they said costs up to $4,500 a month to maintain. They also expressed concerns that the city, following 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.

While some city councilors said Thursday that was the first they’d heard of an Augusta Housing Authority proposal for the property, Rollins has previously acknowledged he has talked with Amanda Bartlett, executive director of the housing authority, about the housing authority’s interest in the property. He said in a July 15 telephone interview he thought the Augusta Housing Authority proposal was “a win-win proposal” and “To me, the proposal from Augusta Housing for St. Mark’s Home and the rest of the site would be the best combination of re-use for the philosophy of the church and compatibility of the city and neighborhood.”

Bartlett has confirmed the Augusta Housing Authority made a proposal for the site before the church issued a formal request for proposals for the property, which involved creating affordable senior housing.

“There is in fact a proposal from Augusta Housing Authority. I’ve read the proposal,” the Rev. Rebecca Grant, deacon of St. Mark’s, told city councilors Thursday. “The last thing we’d want is to find this council in a sideways position, knowing the Augusta Housing Authority has already expressed an interest and in fact has laid out a plan.”

The Rev. Erik Karas, priest in charge at St. Mark’s, said the ordinance seems partly aimed at St. Mark’s and its religious and charitable community purposes and an attempt to interfere in the process of St. Mark’s finding a new owner for the property.

SPLIT VOTE

Langsdorf noted, 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 proposed 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. Some board members said the city’s zoning language was unclear.

At-Large City Councilor Jeff Bilodeau, who along with fellow at-large councilors Dale McCormick and Marci Alexander voted against the moratorium, said it was clear when it was first proposed that it was proposed in response to the St. Mark’s property becoming available, not with the general purpose of clarifying ordinance language.

Alexander also said there was no talk of such a moratorium among councilors until the effort of St. Mark’s to find a new owner for the property was announced.

“I don’t like the nature of this moratorium,” she said. “I think it is unfair.”

At-Large Councilor Cecil Munson, one of the five councilors voting for the moratorium, said if the property is sold to anything other than another religious entity, under the current zoning ordinance the social services being provided there now may not be allowed to continue. He said the moratorium would give church leaders a chance to participate in the process of making any ordinance changes that could impact the property.

‘TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE’

The moratorium, as an ordinance, would normally be required to go through two readings at two separate council meetings with a vote only taking place on the second, final reading. However, on Thursday, councilors at the first reading of the moratorium ordinance voted to suspend those rules and move the proposal directly to a second, final reading and vote.

The city charter, regarding suspension of such rules, states, “The rules and order of business set out in this article shall be observed in all cases, unless suspended by a vote of (two-thirds) of the members present.”

Councilors voted 6-2 to suspend the rules, thus meeting the two-thirds requirement.

Conti made the motion to suspend the rules and take a final vote on the moratorium Thursday.

“Because if time is of the essence, then we don’t want to have to wait and come back and do a second reading before we even get going,” she said. “So we have the second reading tonight instead of two weeks from now.”

Langsdorf said councilors don’t have to declare an emergency to suspend the rules, as the charter allows them to do so at their discretion and with a two-thirds vote if they wish to move the process along.

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.

St. Mark’s 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 church, officials and members said, is no longer able to afford to maintain the large church it once occupied.

“It hurt, harder than you can know, that we couldn’t keep this going,” James Melcher, a 17-year Augusta resident and member of St. Mark’s, said of the decision to leave the property. “We just don’t have the money anymore. Our endowment is shot. We’ve done the best we can trying to serve people. We believe the way we should be spending our money is on the care of the least fortunate among us, not fixing the roof, fixing tile, or fixing those other things.”

The ministry still offers Addie’s Attic Clothing Bank and Everyday Basics Essentials Pantry, which provides people in need with toiletries and other items and rents space to the Augusta Food Bank at the St. Mark’s parish hall at 9 Summer St. next to the church that stands between Pleasant and Summer streets. Those services will continue while the properties are for sale, church officials said.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj