WATERVILLE — City councilors Tuesday will consider a request to rezone 155 West River Road so a church can locate there amid concerns from some on the council about adding more tax-exempt property to the city.

The meeting will be held at 7 p.m. in the council chambers at The Center downtown, but a decision on whether to approve the zoning change could be postponed so that the city’s attorney can attend and advise the council about whether it can legally refuse to rezone the land for use as a church.

When the councilors debated the rezoning issue on Nov. 4, some said zoning the property, the site of the Sparetime Recreation bowling alley, to accommodate a church would mean the city would lose $34,000 annually in property and personal property taxes. The church, Centerpoint Community Church, is tax-exempt.

With two councilors absent from that meeting, councilors decided to wait until Tuesday to consider rezoning the property from a contract-zoned commercial B district to residential B.

Church pastor Craig Riportella told councilors that federal law prohibits governments from forcing land use regulations on religious institutions.

City Solicitor Bill Lee said Monday that he will have to review the issue before giving an opinion. He said a prior municipal commitment will prevent him from attending the meeting.

“Under a federal statute that prohibits discrimination against religious institutions or assemblies, it is likely that it (the church) is going to have to be allowed, but because the property is subject to a contract zone, I want to look at it further before giving a final opinion,” Lee said.

A contract zone attaches conditions to rezoning that form a contract between the landowner and the city. It is used to give landowners broader rights to the use of their land, but restricts some other uses of the property.

Before 1987, the property was zoned residential, but that changed when the city created a contract zone to allow for construction of the bowling alley.

Most churches in the city are in residential zones, according to the city planner.

Meanwhile, Council Chairman Fred Stubbert, D-Ward 1, told church officials Nov. 4 that since Waterville is the smallest city in the state in terms of land area and nearly one-third of its property is considered tax-exempt, extension of tax-exemptions to additional land creates a financial burden.

Stubbert said Monday that two local attorneys called him to say the city should deny the zone change.

“The city has a right to plan for its growth,” Stubbert said. “In the comprehensive plan we said that area (of West River Road) is for commercial development and that should be our top priority. If it represents a hardship for the church, that’s a different story, but I don’t think it does represent a hardship.”

Centerpoint initially planned to build a new church on its current site at 60 West River Road, where its school, Temple Academy, is now located, but church officials changed their minds, Stubbert said.

“I’ve read the federal statute, and it does say you can’t discriminate against religious organizations, but it does indicate in there that if there are other, suitable alternatives, that has to be taken into account.”

Church officials, for instance, can not just say they want to build a church in the middle of The Concourse downtown or next to a home, according to Stubbert. Church officials would have to show justification for what they want to do and why, and Centerpoint officials have not done that, he said.

Bowling alley owner Andy Couture told councilors that his property has been on the market two years with no takers. Church supporters said Centerpoint does a lot in the community, including helping the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter and other charitable organizations. Riportella is also chaplain for both the fire and police departments, they said.

Other tax-exempt entities in the city make other contributions to the community. Colby College, for instance, has given the city property, money for fire equipment and made other donations.

Centerpoint’s plans include renovating the bowling alley to include a sanctuary, cafe to serve as a community meeting place, offices for about 40 staff and centers for youths and teens.

The Planning Board voted recently to recommend the council rezone the West River Road property. Councilors must take three votes on the issue, but may not take all three votes at one meeting. They could take one or two votes Tuesday and a final vote at a later date.

Also Tuesday, the council will consider:

• Taking final votes to approve revisions to the city’s comprehensive plan. The Planning Board has approved the revisions.

• Taking final votes to rezone 20 Industrial Road from commercial to general industrial at the request of Retlew Investment LLC.

• Appropriating $300,000 to secure purchase and sales agreements for easements around the runway approaches at Robert LaFleur Municipal Airport prior to reconstruction of the main runway and for engineering and legal services and related expenses. The easements allow trees to be removed from around the airport for safety reasons.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

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