AUGUSTA — Some city councilors expressed concern Thursday that proposed new zoning rules could restrict the good deeds of churches in providing food, clothing and other services to needy people in the city.

As part of several proposed changes to the zoning ordinance recommended by the Planning Board, churches offering services not directly related to worship, such as soup kitchens, day care centers, food pantries or clothing drives, would be restricted to providing each of those services for no more than 16 hours a week. The rules would deem such uses to be separate, accessory uses from a church’s main use as a place of worship.

Some councilors, who took up the Planning Board’s recommendations Thursday, found the proposal troubling.

“I worry about restricting church services in our community too much,” said Ward 2 Councilor Darek Grant. “If there is a need for more community suppers, more coat drives, more day care, I’m glad churches are stepping up and providing those services to the community. I worry about restricting the good they provide in our community.”

Mayor David Rollins and Ward 1 Councilor Linda Conti said the concern the changes are meant to address is about the effect activities at a church have on the neighborhoods surrounding them — specifically, Conti said, when activities at a church involve the public, not just the church’s congregation.

“I’m not so concerned with them doing whatever they do amongst their own congregation or group,” Conti said. “It’s when they start providing services to the public, and inviting the public to their facilities, because then the scope of what they can do should not be larger than the lot can accommodate. To me that brings a different kind of traffic. It imposes traffic concerns, congestion concerns, that are separate from their religious worship. It’s not saying we don’t want churches to do good works”

Rollins said the city is trying to strike a delicate balance: It doesn’t want to tell people how to worship or not to do good things, but it also wants to make sure neighborhoods don’t become unlivable.

The Rev. Erik Karas, the priest in charge of St. Mark’s Church and pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church on Eastern Avenue, said while the revised changes recommended by the Planning Board are better than the original proposal, the faith community still has concerns about them.

“One concern is this limits the ability of the faith community to be flexible in serving the needs of the community in the future,” Karas said. “We don’t know what the community may need to be served with for more than 16 hours a week in the future.”

He said the faith community’s other concern is that the city is trying to define what worship is. He said many consider providing services to people in need as a key part of how they worship.

“I’d argue services we provide to our neighbors is our primary religious function,” Karas said. “Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless — that is our worship. That said, we’re not uncaring about our neighborhoods. We’d rather have a sit-down conversation with the neighborhood and hear how our religious uses are impacting their lives and work on a solution,” than have limits placed on how churches worship.

The new rules would allow churches to exceed, four weeks out of the year, the 16-hour limit in providing a service such as a food pantry.

Existing churches already offering such services would be grandfathered and allowed to continue operating as they have previously.

The controversial zoning changes are expected to go to councilors for a first reading of two, and a public hearing at their meeting next week, on Thursday.

At-Large Councilor Jeffrey Bilodeau suggested councilors should consider each change individually, table some if agreement can’t be reached on them, and move forward and vote on items on which consensus is reached.

In August, councilors approved a moratorium temporarily banning consideration of any new group, boarding or rooming houses for 180 days in two major zoning districts in the city, including the district encompassing the St. Mark’s property.

City leaders said the moratorium was needed to give the city time to clarify zoning rules, but St. Mark’s leaders said the moratorium would interfere with their efforts to sell the property and prolong the financial burden of maintaining it, money they said would be better spent on the church’s mission of helping people in need.

City officials have expressed concern about how the property could be used, saying they heard Bread of Life Ministries has submitted a proposal for the property. If it acquires some or all of the St. Mark’s site, it could move its homeless shelter from Hospital Street, on Augusta’s east side, its soup kitchen from Water Street, or both, to the St.. Mark’s site. Residents of the neighborhood have said they already have many group homes and other social services, and they’re concerned more such services will have harm the neighborhood and make them feel unsafe.

The Planning Board was directed by the City Council to study the issue and make recommendations to the council, which it did Oct. 18.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj