AUGUSTA — The Planning Board unanimously approved controversial proposed zoning changes involving group homes, homeless shelters and religious institutions on Tuesday, adopting revisions that tried to strike a balance between allowing organizations including churches to provide services to people in need while also protecting neighborhoods from being negatively impacted.

Religious leaders who attended said they were pleased with proposed changes made since previous discussions, though others still had concerns that the rules changes could hamper those providing services to people in need.

The changes are subject to approval and possible modification by the City Council.

City officials made changes to the proposed new zoning rules and definitions following a meeting last month at which the Planning Board tabled consideration of them 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.

Stephen Langsdorf, city attorney, said religious institutions still have to follow the same basic zoning rules as nonreligious entities when it comes to the effect of activities at their properties on neighbors and the general public.

“Because you’re a religious organization, it doesn’t give you a super-exemption to zoning laws,” he said, “especially when we’re talking about new or expanded uses. The law doesn’t say a religious institution, because it is a religious institution, gets to carry on uses that wouldn’t be allowed by a secular organization in the same area. We’re trying to have something appropriate, that works for everybody, doesn’t infringe on anyone’s religious practices, but also provides the appropriate level of protection for residences.”

Changes since the new zoning provisions were discussed last include a revamped definition of a place of worship, which specifies how many hours per week new activities not directly involving worship, such as a new or expanded soup kitchen or food pantry, could occur at religious institutions such as churches. The rules would deem such uses to be separate uses from the main use as a place of worship, and restricted to occur no more than 16 hours a week, for four or more weeks a year.

Nazar noted that 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 Rev. Carie Johnsen, minister of Unitarian Universalist Community Church, said those rules are better than those proposed previously, which caused some local church leaders to bristle because the city sought to define what a church’s primary and secondary uses should be.

“It’s clear you’ve spent a lot of time working on a new religious use definition and you listened to what people brought to you and came back with a definition that is very reasonable and doesn’t put unreasonable burdens on institution or neighborhoods,” Johnsen said.

A. Delaine Nye, board member, said the city’s rules should allow multiple social services to locate in the same place.

“I think we need to look at providing a central place where people who need these services have a bed, stay all night, and they can stay there (during the day), get their meals there, get canned (goods) there, and get social service advice and assistance,” she said. “I think that’d require a huge amount of effort by the City Council and churches and social services agencies. I think we need to look at the big picture and keep that goal in mind in this process.”

Matt Nazar, the city’s development director, said those are important concerns but not issues likely to be solved by the Planning Board as they set zoning rules. He said a facility offering all those type of services could be created in the city as long as the board and the City Council create districts with overlapping uses where, for example, both a shelter and food bank would be allowed.

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.

In August 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.

Linda Conti, Ward 1 city councilor, said the Planning Board has made good progress on the proposed changes but needed to finish up and get their recommendation to the City Council, as the council probably has a long process in front of it, and the moratorium could expire before its work is done.

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.

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

Patsy Tessier, kitchen manager of Bread of Life’s Water Street soup kitchen, and other Bread of Life workers defended the facility and said while previously some users lingered in the area before and after they ate there, most do not and recipients there are generally polite and thankful.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj


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