AUGUSTA — Religion and politics may mix Thursday, as city councilors ponder 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 have a negative effect on 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 some that 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.

“Not a lot of changes are proposed,” Nazar said Tuesday. “This does provide some certainty, so everybody involved will have a clear understanding of what is allowed, and what is not. This gives some solidity to the definitions and uses.”

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.

Councilors are scheduled to meet at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in the council chamber at Augusta City Center.

They are also scheduled to:

• Continue discussion about city blasting rules and whether the city should hire an expert to help determine whether blasting in a McGee Construction quarry operation off West River Road could be the cause of claimed damage to homes in the nearby Grandview neighborhood;

• Discuss a Childhood Hunger Working Group;

• Discuss federal security law requirements for publicly offered bonds; and

• Discuss proposed setback and shoreland zoning ordinance revisions.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj


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