WATERVILLE — The Planning Board is recommending the former Sacred Heart Catholic Church property be rezoned with the conditions that an events center proposed for the site close at 9 p.m. and serve no alcohol.

About 50 people turned out for the virtual board meeting Monday night, at which the board voted 6-0 on the recommendation. The City Council will have the final say.

Businesswoman Jennifer Bergeron and her partners want to buy the church building, church office and rectory at 72 Pleasant St. and 5 Middle St., at the corner of Pleasant and Gilman streets. They propose to use the church as an events center for weddings, receptions, craft fairs, birthday parties, baby showers, conferences, retirement celebrations and the like.

They are requesting the properties be rezoned from Residential-D and Residential-B to Contract Zoned District/Commercial-A. The Planning Board may recommend zone changes to the council, which makes the final decision.

Churches are permitted in the residential zone, but the city and state’s contract zone requirements say a new use must be consistent with the current use. While a church is similar to an events center in that a church may hold weddings, churches don’t have liquor licenses, do not serve alcohol and stay open late at night, board members said. They recommended that if a zone change is made to allow the events center, alcohol must be prohibited and the center’s hours be 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Several area residents said an events center would create noise with people leaving late at night, talking, getting into cars, slamming doors and shining headlights into houses. Others who support the events center said they want to see the historic church preserved, it would be difficult or impossible to use it for anything else and the building would continue to deteriorate and become a fire hazard. Board members wanted Bergeron to set a closing time for the center, but she said she could not because she can not predict when each event would end.

An events center catering to weddings and other gatherings is planned for the former Sacred Heart Catholic Church property on Pleasant Street in Waterville. The Planning Board recommended the zoning change required, with conditions. Amy Calder/Morning Sentinel file

Board member David Johnson said at the outset that he would not support any scenario that would change the residential nature of the neighborhood and that any re-use of the property should be of low intensity. Board member Hilary Koch noted the contract zone requires a new use be consistent with the permitted use, a church.

“I don’t see the owners having any intention of creating an events center that is consistent at all with a church,” she said.

Mayor Jay Coelho suggested the city allow the events center be open for a year and then decide whether to allow it to continue, an idea Bergeron supported.

“I have no interest in being a nuisance neighbor,” she said. “We would love to have the opportunity, and when and if there’s a problem, we’ll fix it.”

She and former Mayor Nick Isgro argued that such reuses have occurred before, with Bergeron citing Gilman Street School’s transformation into housing as an example. Board member Uria Pelletier agreed.

“Residential buildings have been ripped down in residential neighborhoods and turned into banks,” he said.

But Councilor Claude Francke, D-Ward 6, said that while laudable, the effort to preserve the church property would result in a dramatic change in what is fundamentally a residential area and should remain that way.

Resident Kate Roy and others who live on Pleasant, Morrill, Carroll and Middle streets cited concerns about safety and security, noise and light pollution, traffic and parking and whether neighbors would be able to communicate with the owners if there are problems. Roy said she and others support repurposing the church but are concerned because it is a quiet neighborhood, children play on the streets and there are pets there.

Pleasant Street resident Rien Finch said that the nearby Methodist church has events that end at night and when 12 people leave the parking lot they try to be quiet, but the noise can be heard. It’s important, he said, that a time be agreed upon for when an events center closes.

“We don’t think it’s unreasonable at all to have start and end event times,” Finch said.

An events center catering to weddings or other gatherings is proposed for the former Sacred Heart Catholic Church property at 72 Pleasant St. in Waterville. The Planning Board recommended the zoning change required, with conditions. Amy Calder/Morning Sentinel

Shirley Shepherd said that she has lived in the area of Morrill and Middle streets for 25 years and parking has been a problem, even when the church was open. If the events center has the capacity to hold 300 people, there will be an overflow of cars parking on both sides of the streets, causing them to be one-way and making it impossible for emergency vehicles and larger vehicles to pass through, she said. She said vehicles take a long time getting out of the lot at night and neighbors can hear everything, including engines starting and doors slamming.

“I’m really asking you to consider the negative impact on the quality of our lives if this proposal were to go through,” Shepherd said.

Linda DerSimonian said she and her family have lived on Morrill for 40 years and it has been a sanctuary of peace and quiet. She said she would love to see the church repurposed, but not as an events center.

“Please, Planning Board members, consider the integrity of our quiet residential neighborhood as we have known it,” she said.

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