AUGUSTA — A majority of city councilors agreed Thursday to send a proposal to allow the Farmers’ Market at Mill Park to use a former State Street church as its winter location to the Planning Board.

The building, the former Elim Christian Fellowship church, at 70 State St., is in a zone where retail businesses are not allowed, so a move there would require a zone change.

City councilors informally expressed support for sending the issue to the Planning Board for a recommendation on whether zoning rules changes should be made to allow the move.

The market does not have a place to go for the winter season yet, and its organizers want to be in a winter home by the end of November. Officials said the market would be open from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays.

Kelby Young, of Olde Haven Farm in Chelsea, who serves as a liaison between the farmers’ market and the Augusta Downtown Alliance, said he considers the former church to be a potential long-term fit as a winter home for the market, especially because it is near the market’s summer location and downtown Augusta, where it has a loyal customer base, and on the edge of the large west side neighborhood.

However, Ward 1 Councilor Linda Conti said she doesn’t see the matter as an emergency and the city should look at the zoning of the area as part of a bigger picture, not just make changes to allow that specific use at that site.

“To me this is death by 1,000 cuts,” Conti said. “I’d rather say what’s the big plan, rather than chipping away. I don’t think we should just allow these zones to be created for the city by exceptions for this little thing, that little thing. That’s a way of being reactive instead of proactive. I don’t think that solves the issue.”

Other councilors, however, expressed support for the proposal.

“I think it’s a great way to see if the model works for the farmers’ market and works for the west side neighborhood,” said At-large Councilor Marci Alexander. “I’d personally love to be able to walk to a farmers’ market.”

During the summer the market is located under the pavilion at the city’s Mill Park, on the edge of downtown. For the last few winters, it has moved indoors at various locations in the city so vendors and shoppers could be inside, out of the elements.

Last winter it moved into MaineGeneral Medical Center, in the hospital’s dining area.

Volunteers and vendors with the market said while they appreciated the hospital allowing the farmer’s market to be there, they really want to remain in or near downtown so the market remains accessible to its growing customer base there.

Young said business was up by about 110 percent at the market this year and it has built up a solid customer base in that area, including some people who live nearby and walk to the market. He said they’d like the market to be able to remain nearby, either in or near the downtown area, to keep as many of those local customers as possible coming through the winter.

The former Elim church is up a steep hill but within about 1,000 feet of downtown, and about a half-mile from Mill Park.

The building is owned by downtown developer Richard Parkhurst, who market officials said is open to leasing space there to the farmers’ market, which now operates one day a week, on Tuesdays.

Parkhurst said he would allow the market to use the space for the winter rent-free.

Parkhurst also said the city needs to consider changing zoning rules for the area or risk the building, and others like it, deteriorating if new uses aren’t allowed to take place in them.

“It needs to be re-purposed,” he said of the ornate but worn building. “As time passes, you need to come up with a vision to re-purpose that building so it can carry itself on its own. We have to start the conversation about making this a viable community building. I’d hate to see it deteriorate more. It is a beautiful building.”

The spot at the corner of State and Oak streets is in the BP, or Business Professional, district, where most retail businesses aren’t allowed as the primary use of a property. The only retail operations allowed in that zone, according to a city land use chart, are medical sales and pharmacies, which are allowed only as conditional uses and are subject to a higher level of review than they would be if allowed uses would be.

Matt Nazar, the city’s development director, said if city councilors are interested in allowing the farmers’ market to operate there, while still limiting other retail uses in the zone, “the rezoning could be crafted as a very narrowly tailored contract zone that only allows exactly what the farmer’s market needs for their operation,” he said in a memo to City Manager William Bridgeo.

Young said in case the church property doesn’t work out as a winter home for the market, the market also is pursuing options for space on Water Street.

Last year residents of the nearby west side neighborhood, prompted by the St. Mark’s church property being put up for sale and concerns that it could become a homeless shelter, said they were worried the neighborhood could be harmed, as the area increasingly became more developed with multi-unit housing, group homes, and other uses besides single-family residences.

Nazar noted that parking at the site, which has only a small driveway, is another significant problem that would need to be solved.

Parkhurst said he could provide parking if the city sees that as a problem for the proposal.

Mayor David Rollins said the longer-term zoning of the site would be best addressed by the planned review, in the next couple of years, of the city’s comprehensive plan.

The building is only used for storage now, but in recent years the former church building was used as work space for the construction firm that expanded and renovated Lithgow Public Library and rehearsal space for a youth theater troupe.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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