AUGUSTA — The Planning Board has voted to recommend that the city allow the Farmers’ Market at Mill Park to use a vacant former State Street church as its winter home.

Retail use is not allowed otherwise in the zone where the former Elim Christian Fellowship church is located.

The board voted Tuesday to advise the City Council to approve what Matt Nazar, the city’s development director, described as a contract rezoning, specifically applying only to the first floor of the 70 State St. building and limiting retail use there to only for the Augusta farmer’s market and only for six hours or fewer each week.

Board members expressed concern about the lack of parking at the site, which doesn’t have its own parking lot.

Richard Parkhurst, a downtown developer and owner of the building, said he has an agreement in place with Lon Walters, who owns a vacant lot nearby, previously home to the since-demolished former YMCA building, that is diagonal across the street from the proposed market location. He said the agreement would allow the market to lease the lot at no charge but would be responsible for cleaning it up, maintaining it, and plowing it. The lot is currently overgrown with weeds.

Parkhurst said getting the lot cleaned up would be an additional benefit to the city, and he said he plans also to allow Lithgow Public Library, which is adjacent to the market and parking lot sites, to use the parking lot for overflow parking.

Nazar said in a memo to the board that retail use of the property by the farmers’ market would not require any on-site parking.

“There is on-street parking on State Street that is never in use and would be enough for the proposed Farmer’s Market limited usage,” he said in the memo.

Farmers who sell their goods at the market said they need a winter home and want to remain close to a loyal customer base they’ve built up in the downtown area.

Residents said having a farmers’ market at the site would bring life to that part of the city, which is close to the downtown.

“Mr. Parkhurst is willing to invest in a building that is sitting there dead,” said Jon Silverman, a resident and regular shopper at the farmers’ market. “Farmers are looking for a place to go for the winter. We’re not looking to put a 24-hour operation in there. It’s like five hours a week. I don’t think there will be problems. Augusta is a city that needs an injection of life and purpose. Otherwise, buildings like this are going to sit there empty.”

About 25 people at the meeting wore buttons given out before the meeting and at the weekly market, which is open on Tuesday afternoons, which say “I (heart) My Farmers’ Market: Farmers’ Market at Mill Park,” to show their support for the market and its effort to find a winter home.

Board members, who were asked by city councilors to review the issue and make a recommendation back to them, said concerns they had about the plan had been addressed and the city should try out the change and see how it goes.

The contract rezoning also is subject to approval by the City Council.

Linda Conti, Ward 1 city councilor and a resident of the west side neighborhood, which bumps up against the market site, said people she spoke to in the neighborhood were excited about being able to walk to the farmers’ market. She said there will likely be parking problems, but the market will only be open about six hours, one day a week.

“I know there will be crazy parking issues. That’s the life of being in a city,” she said. “How bad can it be, six hours a week? I don’t think we can let parking completely rule our lives. Otherwise, we end up with just Sam’s Club out by the mall. Let’s just try it. It might be OK. In fact, it might be really good.”

Organizers want to be in their winter home by the end of November.

Kelby Young, a farmer who sells at the market, said they want to open at the new site for the first Tuesday after Thanksgiving.

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.

During the summer, the market is under the pavilion at the city’s Mill Park, on the northern 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.

Parkhurst said the city needs to come up with ways to allow buildings such as the old church to be redeveloped or risk them remaining vacant and eventually being torn down.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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