AUGUSTA — The Planning Board has tabled consideration of proposed zoning changes involving group homes, homeless shelters and religious institutions following nearly three hours of often-contentious debate that included accusations the changes would infringe on religious freedoms, an implied threat of a lawsuit, and debate on the perplexing problem of where to provide temporary housing and meals to the city’s most vulnerable, but sometimes most troublesome, population.

The board is scheduled to take up the issue again at its Oct. 18 meeting.

“There may be some interested parties who want this settled right away, but I’d like more time to digest it and really think about the zones,” said A. Delaine Nye, a board member, before Tuesday night’s vote to table the matter. “I’m reluctant to vote on this tonight.”

Corey Vose, vice chairman of the board, agreed members need more time for due diligence, and he said he’d like input from city councilors, who asked the board to study the issue and make a recommendation for zoning definition changes to help clarify the city’s zoning rules relating to group homes, rooming houses, homeless shelters and religious uses.

The changes were proposed in response to concern about what could happen to the prominent west side St. Mark’s Church property, which is for sale.

Last month city 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 the property, 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 site.

The Planning Board was directed by the City Council to study the issue and make recommendations to the council.

Matt Nazar, the city’s development director, noted the City Council can either adopt the board’s recommendations as proposed, modify them or adopt something else entirely.

The changes faced criticism from several local religious leaders representing multiple denominations. They said Tuesday a proposed ban on new or relocating religious institutions in residential areas from providing social services on their property would be an infringement on the constitutional right to practice religion freely. They said providing assistance to people in need is a core part of what they do and part of how they worship.

“What the city defines as social services, religious organizations would define as expressions of our faith,” said the Rev. Kristin White, pastor of Green Street United Methodist Church. “For our church, feeding those who are hungry, or providing clothing, or shelter, is an expression of our faith.”

The Rev. Erik Karas, priest in charge of St. Mark’s Church and pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, and other church leaders, said no government entity has any business telling a religious organization what its primary or secondary roles are.

Karas said he hopes the city will change course but warned if it does not, he expects to spend some time in jail for civil disobedience, and law firms already have offered to file suit against the city, for free, on their behalf.

Ward 1 City Councilor Linda Conti said the city’s attorney is preparing for a lawsuit on the issue, and the city can legally regulate church properties as it does other properties, to limit their impact on neighbors.

“I don’t have to look at religious beliefs to say, ‘This street can’t handle your parking needs,'” she said. “There are things the city can do without infringing on your religious practices.”

Several residents of the west side neighborhood, in which the St. Mark’s property is located, said the neighborhood already has more than its share of group homes, and transients in the area cause problems including vandalism, break-ins, and assaults. Some residents, they say, are afraid to walk alone.

However, the owners of buildings and businesses in downtown Augusta, where a soup kitchen is located now, said downtown is a neighborhood, too, and expressed concern that the proposed zoning changes could result in an expansion of social services offered downtown.

Christopher Shaw, a 16-year city police officer who, with his wife, Stacey, recently opened The Black and Tan restaurant on Bridge Street, just above Water Street, said many people are roaming downtown streets without a purpose, and “unsavories” come into the business looking to use the bathroom. They have found people sleeping, passed out drunk, on the business’s porch.

“I’ve never seen it worse than it is now,” Shaw said. “The question is what to do about it? I don’t have an answer.”

Stacey Shaw noted they’re not against Bread of Life, which she said is needed to help people in need.

At least two people suggested the vacant former Hannaford supermarket building on Willow Street could be a good location for a soup kitchen and homeless shelter.

Nazar noted that is a privately owned property and the city has no authority to turn it into a shelter, but the city could help organizations interested in using the property in that way contact the building owner.

Vose noted wherever those services are provided, they probably will affect somebody.

Jim Snee, owner of a Chapel Street apartment building, said he rents to many tenants with mental health problems, and the assistance provided to them by their social workers is, more than half the time, inept. He said many don’t get the help they need, can stop taking their medication and can become violent.

“They need help. They deserve to be treated as human beings,” said Snee, a Vermont resident who has a local property manager who oversees his apartment building. “There is a serious mental health problem in Maine and elsewhere. It’s going to become a public health problem. It’s a serious problem and it wreaks havoc on a neighborhood.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj


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