AUGUSTA — Churches would be required to seek approval from the city’s Planning Board to add or expand activities or services such as day care centers, preschools, food pantries, social services, group homes, soup kitchens or shelters at their facilities, under proposed new zoning rules discussed by city councilors Thursday.

Whether churches can add those types of activities now, in zones in which they wouldn’t be allowed otherwise if they weren’t affiliated with a religious institution, is a gray area in city ordinance now, which some councilors said they hope to clear up with the proposed changes.

However, some councilors — including Marci Alexander, at-large councilor and a member of the committee which made the recommendations — expressed concern about potentially infringing on religious entities’ ability to offer such activities and services. Alexander said she opposed changing the ordinance’s rules regulating religious institutions because she didn’t want the city to interfere with the charitable work they do in Augusta. But she that added if changes must be made, the recommendations are a fair compromise.

“I didn’t want any further restrictions on churches in Augusta,” she said. “They do a tremendous amount of work in Augusta, work that taxpayers don’t have to pay for. I still don’t think we need a change to the ordinance, but if this council determines we do, this is the proposal I’d support.”

Fellow committee member Ward 1 Councilor Linda Conti said rules changes are needed to prevent new activities at churches from having significant negative effects on residential neighborhoods, such as increased traffic. She said she thinks city rules already ban some of those activities, but the city’s code enforcement officers won’t enforce them.

“This is trying to have a way we can have a balance between residents and religious operations, which doesn’t lead to First Amendment challenges,” Conti said. “We’re not saying don’t feed the poor. What we’re saying is if the feeding of the poor in a certain location is going to become burdensome to that location, then it can’t take over the area.”

The proposed rules would require churches starting or expanding any of the listed uses as an accessory to their facilities’ main use as a religious institution to go before the Planning Board for a conditional use review for those uses. Neighbors and others would have a chance, as part of that review, to speak out against it.

Kristin Collins, an attorney for the city, said while the Planning Board would be allowed to reject the proposal, such rejections, in conditional use reviews, are rare. She said a much more likely outcome is the proposed new use would be allowed, or allowed with conditions placed on it to try to help address neighbors’ concerns.

The Rev. Erik Karas, who served on the committee, said he’d prefer churches not need to seek conditional use approval for uses services it provides to those in need. But he said the proposal did at least seem to provide a way churches can provide such services, as long as they agree to meet conditions set by the Planning Board.

“It has created additional hoops we have to jump through, but there’s still a path,” he said.

Councilors probably will conduct the first reading, of two readings required by the city charter for passage, of the proposed zoning changes at their business meeting in two weeks.

The proposal is the latest effort to define religious activities and their “accessory uses” while seeking to protect residential neighborhoods without trampling religious freedoms.

The recommendations in the final report of a committee formed to tackle the sensitive issue after it was carved out of other zoning ordinance changes don’t appear to propose any drastic ordinance changes.

What the committee does recommend is adding performance standards to criteria considered by the Planning Board in judging whether conditional uses should be allowed in a particular spot. The standards would specify that new conditional uses should not cause lines of vehicles to back up in the street, nor allow pedestrians to loiter, if either would harm the surrounding neighborhood.

The ad hoc committee was formed after local religious leaders objected to previous efforts to alter zoning ordinance definitions of religious activities, with some saying the previously proposed changes would have infringed on their members’ constitutional rights to practice religion and put restrictions on the social services they provide to the needy, which they said is a core part of how they worship.

City officials sought to clarify zoning rules after concerns were expressed by neighbors to the St. Mark’s church property after church officials said they planned to put the property up for sale. Neighbors and officials including Mayor David Rollins expressed concern that some or all of the St. Mark’s property, which abuts a large west side neighborhood, could be sold and turned into a homeless shelter.

The committee also recommends adding religious uses as permitted uses in a city zone, Kennebec Business Development 2, which includes in-town parcels on each side of the Kennebec River, where they are not allowed now. Two churches — Penney Memorial United Baptist Church and the Christian Science Church — already are in that zone, and committee members said they saw no clear planning reason why churches, synagogues and other religious uses shouldn’t be allowed in that zone.

Beyond that, the recommendations don’t propose wholesale changes to the city’s existing rules. Instead, according to Matt Nazar, city development director and the city staff member who worked with the committee, they seek to bring clarity to zoning rules.

The committee does recommend making a number of accessory uses that might occur in a religious setting subject to review by the Planning Board, unless they are expressly listed already in the city’s table of permitted uses. Those uses include conference centers, social services, day care centers, group homes, medical clinics, meal centers and food pantries. Also included are shelters, which the committee recommends be required to meet an additional requirement, that they not be located with 1,000 feet of another shelter.

The conditional use standard would allow both religious and secular entities to conduct those uses within their facilities, as long as the Planning Board determines they meet performance and conditional use standards. It also would give neighbors, the committee noted in its report, a chance to speak up and voice concerns about the effect of such uses in the review process.

Accessory uses would be allowed, under the committee’s recommendations, as long as they remained subordinate to the main, religious use of a property. Nazar said whether something is a subordinate use would be a judgment call by the city’s code enforcement officers.

The committee recommendations would not apply to existing religious uses, as they’d be grandfathered, unless they sought to expand or modify their facilities.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj