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 is seeking a legal opinion on its vote to rezone two parcels that would allow for the new use. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file Buy this Photo

WATERVILLE — The city has hired a law firm to advise it on whether the Planning Board and City Council are acting appropriately on decisions about whether to rezone the Sacred Heart Catholic Church property to allow for an events center to be developed there.

City Manager Steve Daly said Wednesday that Perkins Thompson P.A. of Portland was hired last week to look at all of the information concerning the recommendation the Planning Board made to the council about the rezoning issue and the council’s first vote June 15 to approve rezoning the property.

The Planning Board makes recommendations only on zoning matters, and the council has the final say. The council must take one more vote on the issue. That vote could come as early as Tuesday, July 6, depending on whether the city has a legal opinion from Perkins Thompson by then. If so, the item would be on the council agenda that day.

“I’m anticipating that it will be,” Daly said.

City Solicitor William A. Lee III normally issues legal opinions on such matters, but a lawyer in his firm represents Jennifer Bergeron, who wants to buy the church property to develop it into an events center that would host weddings, receptions, craft fairs, concerts and other activities.

Bergeron and two partners are part of BACAS, a company that is asking the council to rezone 72 Pleasant St. and 5 Middle St. from Residential-B and Residential-D to Contract Zoned District Commercial-A. Bergeron says the house on the property would continue to be used for residential purposes as part of the plan.

The Planning Board on June 7 voted 6-0 to recommend the council approve the zone change with several conditions, including that no alcohol be served on the property, the venue hours be restricted to between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. and the church office, a separate building on the site, be used only by the events center. Board members who laid out the conditions maintain that a city ordinance and state law say a new use must be consistent with the current and permitted use, a church, and an events center is not consistent with that use. Member Bruce White was absent from the meeting.

On June 15 the council ignored the Planning Board’s recommendation, instead voting 4-3 to rezone the two parcels to Commercial-A and amend the contract zone to say alcohol may be served on the site, the center would close at 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. Bergeron said it is necessary to serve alcohol at the center and 9 p.m. is too early to close it.

An attorney, Councilor Claude Francke, D-Ward 6, argued that the council’s decision could open the city up to a costly lawsuit.

The Waterville City Council is 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. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file Buy this Photo

Meanwhile, Bergeron and her supporters say being able to turn the property into an events center would preserve an historic church that otherwise would lie vacant or be razed, but others say it is a quiet residential neighborhood and it should remain so. Some of the neighbors are older people who have lived in their homes for decades and say weddings and other events that serve alcohol would produce noise from vehicles parking in the lot and on streets, and people leaving late at night, slamming vehicle doors and shining lights in windows.

Daly, the city manager, said Wednesday that Perkins Thomson has all of the information it needs to issue a legal opinion on the matter, including a video of the meeting at which councilors voted to rezone the property.

“I’ve asked them to give us an opinion as to whether the Planning Board or the council has made any legal mishaps in the case of the Planning Board, in their recommendation to the council and the council, with what they intend to,” Daly said. “They’re going to look down the road for potholes and make sure no one steps into them. I think it is important to get an opinion on the actions of the Planning Board as well, because if for any reason the Planning Board was recommending to the council that it do something that was violating the law or our zoning ordinance, then we need to know that, too.”

Daly noted that the Planning Board did not have legal counsel during its deliberations, so “it’s appropriate to review their actions.”

Council Chairman Erik Thomas, D-Ward 7, said Wednesday that, even if the city gets a legal opinion before a special council meeting scheduled for next Tuesday, he doesn’t think the zoning issue will be on the agenda, which will focus on the city budget.

Thomas on June 15 was one of those who voted to rezone the property, saying people who object to such changes often are afraid of the unknown and tend to cook up worst-case scenarios. But councilors Flavia Oliveira, D-Ward 2, and Rebecca Green, D-Ward 4, said they weren’t ready to vote on making a change that could be illegal and they objected to the fact that Bergeron did not give a full presentation on the proposed events center to the Planning Board as she did with the council.

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