WATERVILLE — The Planning Board voted 6-0 on Monday night to recommend the Waterville City Council amend the city’s zoning ordinance to allow churches in the commercial zone, which would allow the First Congregational Church of Christ to lease space at the former Boys & Girls Club on Main Place.

The church plans to sell its building at 7 Eustis Parkway to the Children’s Discovery Museum, of Augusta, and has been struggling to find a suitable space to move the church that has seen its membership decline over the years.

Church members want to lease space in the former Boys & Girls Club at 6 Main Place, which is vacant and owned by Uria Pelletier, a contractor, rental property owner and developer who owns Kavestone LLC. He and the church are seeking the change to the city’s zoning ordinance.

The Planning Board voted voted 5-1 on Dec. 2 to postpone making a recommendation to allow members to get input from City Solicitor William A. Lee III. Pelletier said about 4,000 square feet of the south side of the building, formerly the office area for the Boys & Girls Club, would be renovated for the church, and another 1,000 square feet would be developed into a common area.

Pelletier said he also wants to use part of the building as space to train people to work for his company.

The Planning Board does not have authority to make zoning changes — only the City Council has that power — but it may make a recommendation to the council.

Board Chairman Paul Lussier said Monday that since the board’s last meeting, City Planner Ann Beverage and Lee had corresponded about the matter. Planning Board member Bruce White said he had done some research and learned the former Boys & Girls Club building has been vacant since 1999 and has had four owners, including Pelletier, over the past 20 years.

“To my knowledge, nothing has been done to this point, so we should be very happy you are doing this and I think it’s going to be good for the neighborhood, good for the city and good for the church,” White said.

Lussier agreed, adding that based on Lee’s recommendation, he thought the board should vote to recommend the ordinance amendment to the council.

The building is one of only two buildings that remain intact from Colby College’s former location downtown. Construction of the building started before Colby moved to Mayflower Hill from downtown, with that move starting in 1930 and ending in 1952.

The building was used mostly as a women’s gymnasium. The Boys & Girls Club club sold the property in 1999 to a man who owned Dunkin’ Donuts in Waterville at the time, and he later sold it to another entity.

The Boys & Girls Club moved to North Street in 1999 and became the Alfond Youth Center, housing both the club and the YMCA. Northern Ventures bought the Main Place building in 2006 and Pelletier bought it in 2018.

Board member Tom Nale said Monday he also spoke with Lee about the zoning issue. Lee’s opinion is that the zoning ordinance violates the federal Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The ordinance allows nonprofit recreational, social and fraternal organizations, but not churches. Not allowing churches in the Commercial-A Zone also disallows them in all other commercial zones, as well as the General, Industrial and Downtown Industrial zones.

Meanwhile, Nale said the city could exclude fraternal organizations from the Commercial-A Zone but, as Lee said, it would have a negative impact on the owners of properties in that zone, who would not be able to rent to nonprofit entities and who could see property values impacted.

It also could make some uses in the zone nonconforming, which could have implications for ownership transfer or expansion of uses.

“It could spur expensive and time-consuming litigation against the city,” Nale said, “and could create the appearance that the city has animus toward religious organizations in the commercial zone.”

After the Planning Board meeting Dec. 2, Lee said he believed the commercial zone where the Main Place building is located should be changed to allow religious institutions, per federal law.

A change to the Commercial-A zone needs to be changed to add religious uses, Lee said. If a municipality has zoning and a particular zone allows fraternal organizations and public assemblies — uses analogous to churches — the churches must also be allowed in that zone, as required by federal law, according to Lee.

Meanwhile, a letter dated Dec. 4 from the church’s lawyer, Robert H. Levin, of Portland, to Mayor Nick Isgro and Lussier, the Planning Board chairman, says the city’s zoning ordinance is in violation of the Federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

In the letter, Levin requested the Planning Board and City Council approve an amendment to the ordinance allowing religious facilities within the Commercial-A Zone and, by extension, all other commercial zones in the city.

“The church has been an integral part of the community since 1828,” Levin wrote in his letter. “Their missions currently serve about 1,000 local people per month. Finally, by enacting this law, Congress meant to emphasize the principle that the right to assemble for worship is at the very core of the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion.”

The Planning Board’s vote Monday night to recommend to the council was 6-0 because the board’ seventh member, Chris Rancourt, resigned recently. The City Council on Tuesday will consider appointing Robert Neal Patterson to that seat. Patterson was present for Monday’s meeting.

In another matter, the board voted 6-0 to recommend to the council that the zoning ordinance be amended to allow for solar farms in the Rural Residential Zone.

Beverage said the city leased two properties to a company that wants to install solar farms. One of the properties is the former city landfill and the other the so-called Runser property that is near the bottom of the airport, off Webb Road. Current ordinances do not specify where solar farms are allowed, according to Beverage.

Lussier said the Rural Residential Zone has the most land on which to build solar farms.

“It seems to me this would be a good use for the Rural Residential Zone. They’re quiet neighbors, too,” Lussier said, drawing laughter.

The board postponed to Jan. 27 a request from the Alfond Youth Center at 126 North St. to revise a previously approved plan to reconfigure vehicle and pedestrian access to the building.

Also postponed to Jan. 27: A request by Douglas Frame of Elite Properties LLC to rezone 83 Pleasant St. from Residential-D to Contract Zoned District-Commercial-A so he may add a second, two-unit residential building there.

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