Waterville city officials have been considering a proposal for a zoning change on Pleasant and Middle streets to allow the former Sacred Heart Catholic Church property to become an events center. The City Council voted 4-3 to rezone two parcels that would allow for the new use. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

WATERVILLE — The City Council has moved closer to allowing a controversial proposal for an events center to open in the former Sacred Heart Catholic Church on Pleasant Street, ignoring the recommendations of the Planning Board and prompting one councilor to declare the city could open itself up to a costly lawsuit.

Jennifer Bergeron and her partners are asking the council to rezone 72 Pleasant St. and 5 Middle St. from Residential-B and Residential-D to Contract Zoned District Commercial-A so they can host weddings, receptions, craft fairs, concerts and other events in the church building.

Councilor Claude Francke, D-Ward 6, sounded the alarm Tuesday night that the council’s decision, if finalized, legally exposes the city.

“I am an attorney,” Francke said. “I did look up the state statute, I looked up the Planning Board ordinance. My advice is to look before you leap. Be careful, council. You could end up putting us on the hook for a very costly lawsuit.”

The Planning Board, after hearing neighbors say they do not want the residential nature of their area disturbed with an events center, voted June 7 to recommend the council approve the zone change with several conditions, including that no alcohol be served, the venue hours be restricted to between 7 a.m.-9 p.m. and the church office be used only by the events center and not rented out for another use.

Despite protestations from three councilors Tuesday, four councilors voted to rezone the two parcels to Commercial-A. The 4-3 vote also amends the contract zone to say alcohol may be served on site, the center would close by 11 p.m. on weekdays and midnight on Saturday, outgoing traffic from the site would be diverted to Middle and North streets and if Bergeron sells the property, it would revert back to the former zone.

Councilor Rick Foss, R-Ward 5, recommended the amendment, which also was supported by Councilor Mike Morris, D-Ward 1, Thomas Klepach, D-Ward 3, and Council Chairman Erik Thomas, D-Ward 7.

Francke argued that rezoning the properties as such would violate state law and the city’s ordinance, which says a new use must be consistent with the current and permitted use — a church — and he said an events center is not consistent with that use. Thomas and others said it was important to take one vote Tuesday to approve the rezoning because time is running out for Bergeron to plan for the events center.

Bergeron said preserving the church, beautifying the property and turning it into an events center would benefit area restaurants, florists and other businesses. Thomas, who said he is in the events business, said the Waterville Opera House and other venues think they are in the music and plays business, but “what they’re really in is the concession business,” and depend on selling liquor.

“It really is an integral part in trying to run an events center,” he said.

Waterville city officials have been considering a proposal for a zoning change on Pleasant and Middle streets to allow the former Sacred Heart Catholic Church property to become an events center. The City Council voted 4-3 to rezone two parcels that would allow for the new use. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

He also downplayed people’s concerns about such a center. “People are afraid of the unknown and they tend to cook up worst-case scenarios in their heads,” he said.

City Manager Steve Daly acknowledged that the city needed a legal opinion on the zoning issue. But the council could not use City Solicitor William A. Lee III’s opinion on the church issue because an attorney in his firm also represents Bergeron, which creates a conflict of interest. Daly said he would find another lawyer to issue a legal opinion.

Councilors Flavia Oliveira, D-Ward 2, and Rebecca Green, D-Ward 4, sought to delay the vote Tuesday. Green said that while she applauded Bergeron for trying to save the church building, she was disappointed Bergeron did not make the same presentation about her plans to the Planning Board that she did for the council Tuesday night.

Claude Francke Rich Abrahamson

“I’m a little bit confused about the order of events here,” Green said, adding that she thought it was important Bergeron spell out the hours of operation. Bergeron had told the Planning Board she could not do that because she could not predict when events would end.

“Whatever happens with this project, I just find it completely unacceptable to have no fixed hours of operation,” Green said.

As other councilors pushed for a vote and praised Bergeron’s plans, Oliveira said she was not comfortable voting on the rezoning without knowing if it is a legal move.

“What’s the rush to do it today then, if we don’t have the legal (opinion)?” she said.

Mayor Jay Coelho recommended the council vote on the matter Tuesday, as a legal opinion would be coming, but Francke objected citing his concerns about legal exposure.

Francke said getting a legal opinion was simple. “I was able to do that,” he said. “I don’t think this is a rocket science thing. Unfortunately, Ms. Bergeron has not listened to her legal counsel; otherwise, she wouldn’t be here.”

Meanwhile, Planning Board Chairwoman Samantha Burdick told councilors she thought they hadn’t heard neighbors’ concerns about the rezoning proposal and they had spent hours in meetings, expressing concerns about noise, alcohol consumption, lights, traffic leaving late at night and vehicles parking along streets.

“Now, the neighbors feel very disenfranchised because they haven’t been heard,” Burdick said.

Like Green, Burdick said Bergeron had not presented a full plan to the Planning Board and neighbors, as she had done with the council Tuesday, so members had nothing to negotiate with.

“Honestly,” Burdick said, “I’m really upset for the neighbors.”

Earlier, she said that if the closing time for the events center is 11 p.m. and people hang around to have cocktails “we’re talking about a bar and not an events center.”

“That, I think, is the neighbors’ biggest concern,” she said.

As councilors debated the traffic issues that may arise from the events center, Bergeron said some people leaving a wedding, for instance, will want to leave after activities end, but others will want to stay and drink cocktails until midnight or later, so not all of the vehicles likely will leave at once.

After the vote Tuesday, Francke commented on that stance. “We gave Jennifer the green light to open a bar on Pleasant Street,” he said.

Thomas shot back: “That is not what we did.”

Earlier, former Mayor Nick Isgo, a real estate agent and friend of Bergeron’s, spoke in support of her proposal, saying a lot of the concerns come from “unknown fear.”

“I would ask all of you to support this as best you can to preserve this important piece of history,” he said.

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