WATERVILLE — Emotions ran high at Tuesday’s Waterville City Council meeting when the topic returned once again to the proposed rezoning of the former Sacred Heart Catholic Church. The council ultimately voted to table the old article on the rezoning indefinitely and send a new version back to the Planning Board, as it had been advised to do by legal counsel.

Jennifer Bergeron is interested in buying the former church property, at the corner of 72 Pleasant and 5 Middle streets, and using it as an events center for weddings, funerals, conferences and similar events. She and two partners are part of BACAS, the company behind the rezoning request before the council.

That request has been the subject of criticism from neighbors who say they fear the noise from parking, live music and hundreds of guests will be disruptive in a residential zone.

The former Sacred Heart Catholic Church property at 72 Pleasant St. in Waterville. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file

After much discussion, the council finalized a new version of the rezoning request to be sent to the Planning Board, which states that the property will remain zoned residential, with a contract zone; the property will be allowed to serve alcohol; it will close at 11 p.m. on weekdays and midnight on Saturday, and would require a traffic study.

The council voted 5-2 to send this version to the Planning Board, with Councilors Rebecca Green, D-Ward 4, and Claude Francke, D-Ward 6, voting against it. It was unclear at the meeting what exactly the traffic study would look like and who would have to pay for it.

There was also some confusion about what exactly the council had voted on at the last meeting, as the minutes conflicted with the video on whether the council had amended the zoning to remain a residential district with a contract zone or if the commercial zone had been extended to include the potential events property.

The fate of the rezoning, once it goes back to the Planning Board, is still up in the air. The change would require a 5-2 vote from the council, and it is unclear if there is enough support to carry that vote.

In June, the council voted to approve a version of the rezoning, 4-3. At Tuesday’s meeting, Councilor Rick Foss, R-Ward 5, who had previously voted in favor of the rezoning said, “I don’t know that my support is still behind it.”

Foss said that he plans to attend the Planning Board meetings that will examine the rezoning to fully understand residents’ concerns.

The rezoning has been a drawn-out and rocky process. The Planning Board had originally voted unanimously to recommend the council approve the rezoning, but with the conditions that alcohol not be served, and that the venue hours would be restricted to between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m.

But when that recommendation came before the council it was ignored, and the council voted to approve the rezoning, and to allow alcohol to be served on-site, and to allow the venue to remain open until 11 p.m. on weekdays and midnight on Saturdays.

The city asked for a legal opinion on the matter but had to hire an outside firm because a lawyer from the city solicitor’s firm represents Bergeron on other matters not related to the zoning issue.

Portland attorney James N. Katsiaficas reviewed the situation as requested by the council and submitted an opinion stating that the city had not followed the correct procedures and would have to repeat the process.

Earlier this week, residents from the area around the church filed a petition with the City Council, outlining concerns about the effort to rezone the property, and steps residents would like to see the council take going forward.

Some of those steps include limiting hours of operation and numbers of guests permitted during events, requiring a traffic study and requiring a socio-economic impact study for various uses, including serving alcohol and holding live performance events.

Bergeron expressed her frustration with the entire process, saying she was “annoyed” and that she was misled by city employees who told her at the beginning of the process that this would be a fast and easy approval.

Throughout the meeting, Bergeron insisted that if the venue was unable to serve alcohol and have later hours, the project was “dead in the water.”

Councilor Green proposed an amendment that would permit the venue to serve beer and wine only, but Bergeron said that many weddings now feature signature cocktails and that it would put her at a disadvantage with other venues that serve liquor. Green withdrew the amendment after Bergeron’s comments.

Bergeron said that the whole project began because she wanted to save the church and that she had looked into other uses for the property but an events center was the only feasible option. She said she needed to be able to book larger events to be able to “pay the bills.”

“I am just stymied by the fact that people don’t want to have an event center there,” Bergeron said. “I get that I want to have late hours, we might have some bigger events because I’ve got to pay the bills. For the most part, we want to host weddings. This is just the stupidest thing.”

Council Chairperson Erik Thomas, Ward 7, apologized for missteps in the approval process, and cautioned the other councilors against putting too much weight in the residents’ petition, as they can’t know what exactly was said to residents to convince them to sign the petition and whether that may have been misleading.

Josh Martin, a resident who was involved in the petition effort, spoke on behalf of residents and said he was unaware of anyone involved with the petition misleading residents about what would go on with the venue. He said they are not fully opposed to the events center, they just want to make sure residents are also protected by the city.

“I think that there is a way to move forward on this to save and protect the church while saving and protecting the interests of the residents,” Martin said.

The council also heard from Portland attorney Tom Schoening who has been retained by a group of 10 residents in the area. He said that his clients’ main concerns are the alcohol and the late-night noise and that they are looking to find “reasonable operational restrictions that will preserve the residential character of the surrounding neighborhood.”

At the meeting, Bergeron said that when she first went to the Planning Board she thought “that there was no way that I was going to get a fair hearing at that time” because four members of the board lived near the project. Later in the meeting Councilor Thomas Klepach, D-Ward 3, asked Katsiaficas if there was any legal liability for the city if Planning Board members who lived in the area signed the petition.”

Martin responded, that to his knowledge, no members of the board signed the petition. He said that although a Thomas S. DePre Sr. signed the petition, that is not the same person as Thomas DePre who is on the Planning Board. Martin said that although his wife is on the Planning Board, she is not involved with the residents organizing and did not sign the petition or assist him in creating it.

When asked at the meeting about the possibility of board members signing the petition and then being involved in the approval process, Katsiaficas said “Ouch.”

Martin provided a copy of the signatures to the Morning Sentinel on Wednesday, and there were no signatures from Planning Board members.

The proposal now returns to the Planning Board, where the review process will begin again, although the board has been directed to only look into the legality of the rezoning, not propose new conditions to it.

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