WATERVILLE — The City Council voted 4-3 on Tuesday night to approve a redesign concept for The Concourse that would add 76 parking spaces to the downtown parking lot but remove some trees, a topic that spawned debate.

Councilors unexpectedly added a zoning item to the agenda, then voted 7-0 to approve a change to the ordinance to allow churches in the commercial zone after a councilor raised concerns about the city’s ordinance being in violation of federal law.

During debate Tuesday about the redesign concept for The Concourse, City Engineer Nick Champagne said the city’s Parking Study Committee looked at three options for redesigning The Concourse and agreed with his stance that Option B be recommended to the council.

That option would maintain the road that extends from Spring Street to Main Street, through The Concourse, and add 76 parking spaces, but would mean removing some trees. There are about 70 trees in The Concourse that were planted about 20 years ago.

City Manager Michael Roy has been an advocate for maintaining as many trees as possible, while others at Tuesday’s meeting said the main focus is increasing parking spaces, as some 40 or 50  spaces will be lost downtown when the city reconfigures one-way traffic on Main and Front streets to two-way traffic as part of a $7.37 million federal BUILD grant.

Both Roy and Champagne said they think the Option B redesign would add the most parking spaces at the lowest cost. Roy said the cost of redesigning The Concourse will not be known until an engineering firm can calculate such a cost, and the engineering firm cannot do that until the city has identified the redesign concept it wants to pursue.

Roy estimated the redesign, including needed resurfacing of The Concourse, would be between $300,000 and $500,000.

Champagne and Council Chairman Sydney Mayhew, R-Ward 4, who is a member of the parking committee, said keeping the roadway through The Concourse is important to help prevent traffic congestion, keep the area safe for pedestrians and enable emergency vehicles to get through.

“I can say cohesively as a committee we looked at all those things,” Mayhew said. “This is why we came up with this option.”

Roy said the concept is flexible and changes may be made to it.

He said that when the contractor gets on scene to do the work, there will be a lot of options to remove trees and place them somewhere else or even keep some where they are. He estimated work could start on The Concourse in early 2021.

Mayhew said making a decision on the redesign is important. One of the other options the committee looked at would remove all the trees on The Concourse and free up 145 parking spaces, but it would look like the “Walmart parking lot.” He said the city is still talking with Colby College officials about college students parking at The Concourse. He said Colby takes the matter seriously and has educational sessions with incoming freshmen to encourage them to park elsewhere.

Mayhew said some of his constituents have spoken to him about their concerns that removing trees at The Concourse will have an effect on the environment, a stance that Mayor Nick Isgro appeared immediately to dismiss.

“There’s not going to be any effects on the environment,” Isgro said.

Julian Payne, a member of the Waterville Board of Education, said Maine is a heavily forested state, there are trees on Main Street and keeping trees on The Course should not be a concern.

“It’s a parking issue,” he said. “If you’re spending that kind of money, it’s not the place to be a greenhouse.”

But resident Dick Thomas urged caution, saying the Walmart parking lot is “really pretty ugly.” He said as trees grow larger, they are more beautiful and it is nice to have a beautiful downtown. Trees also provide shade, he noted.

Councilors Mayhew and Flavia Oliveira, D-Ward 2, Meg Smith, D-Ward 3, and Erik Thomas, D-Ward 7, voted to approve the redesign concept, while Ward 6’s Claude Francke was joined by councilors Mike Morris, D-Ward 1, and Jay Coelho, D-Ward 5, in opposition.

Francke said it made more sense to wait until the traffic changes are made downtown as part of the BUILD grant work before making decisions about parking. Morris questioned the cost of the project, saying the redesign would require a lot of money for a small net gain.



A zoning ordinance issue was not listed on Tuesday’s agenda, but more than an hour into the meeting, at the end of a section where councilors may discuss anything they wish, Francke asked the council to end debate and vote on the zoning amendment. He said the city is in violation of federal law by not allowing churches in the commercial zone.

“I think it’s a good idea for us to be in compliance with federal law,” Francke said.

He was referring to an issue the Planning Board has been debating and that that board voted on Monday night regarding a request by business owner, contractor and developer Uria Pelletier to make the zoning change.

Pelletier wants to rent space at the former Boys & Girls Club building at 6 Main Place to the First Congregational United Church of Christ, which plans to sell its church on Eustis Parkway and downsize.

The Planning Board recently postponed making a recommendation to the council on the matter because some members wanted to talk with City Solicitor William A. Lee III about it. Lee later said the city must make the zone change because the city’s zoning ordinance violates the Federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The Planning Board voted 6-0 on Monday to recommend the council amend the ordinance.

Planners may only make recommendations to the council, which has the final say on zoning matters.

In other matters Tuesday, the council voted to appoint Robert Neal Patterson to the Planning Board to fill a vacancy created when Chris Rancourt resigned recently.

Councilors also voted to accept a $15,000 donation from the RX Abuse Leadership Initiative for the Police Department’s Operation HOPE program, which helps those addicted to opioids receive treatment.

They approved changes to the lease with Airlink Academy at the city-owned Robert A. LaFleur Municipal Airport that reduces the space the business uses from 497 square feet to 292.5 square feet and increases the lease from $8 to $12 per square foot.

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