WATERVILLE — The Planning Board on Monday night got mired down in a debate about the former Sacred Heart Catholic Church zoning issue, ultimately deciding after more than an hour of discussion to postpone the talks to July 26.

It was the latest snag for the controversial proposal to use the property as an events center, after drawing sharp opposition from neighborhood residents and an unusual legal opinion that suggested the city wasn’t following proper practices in reviewing the plans.

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. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file

The board was to have had a discussion, with no vote, about a request by the Waterville City Council to explain in writing how rezoning the church property to allow an events center there would be consistent or not consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan, as well as uses permitted on the property under the city’s zoning rules.

City Planner Ann Beverage said that the attorney hired by officials to give a legal opinion on the board and City Council’s actions regarding the rezoning request mentioned at last week’s council meeting that the property could be left in the residential zone. But Beverage said she believes the attorney, James N. Katsiaficas, misspoke because offices, for instance, are not allowed in a residential zone and there is a former church office on the property.

The attorney had recommended the Planning Board write a memo to the council that addresses the comprehensive plan and how the board’s recent vote on a recommendation to the council reflects what is in that plan. The board had voted 6-0 on June 7 to recommend rezoning the 72 Pleasant St. and 5 Middle St. properties from Residential-B and Residential-D to Contract-Zoned Commercial-A with the conditions that no alcohol is served, the hours are restricted from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. and the office be used only as an office not be rented out.

But the council, which has authority to rezone, whereas the Planning Board does not, rejected that recommendation June 15 and took a first, 4-3 vote to allow alcohol to be served, extend the hours of operation until later in the evening and stipulate that if the property is resold, it would go back to the previous zoning. A second vote is needed to finalize the action.

Planning Board member David Johnson reviewed Chapter 13 of the comprehensive plan that spells out the city’s goals and policies, and went over each item, explaining why he thought some pertained to the church issue and some did not. In some instances, he noted that neighbors of the church would say having an events center would detract from the comprehensive plan’s goal of “creating a city that is a great place to live.”

“It would increase the amount of noise, and the residents have voiced that concern,” Johnson said.

The comprehensive plan, he noted, also says the work of neighborhood groups should be supported and encouraged by the city. “I believe we should be treating this neighborhood as a neighborhood group,” he said.

More than 100 people have signed a petition saying they do not want an events center in the residential neighborhood.

Planning Board Chairperson Samantha Burdick said the council did not send the board the proper resolution to discuss and comment on at Monday’s meeting.

“We need them to send us the correct resolution or ordinance so we can have an actual discussion on the words they are providing us, and we’re prepared to send it back to them,” she said.

Beverage said the council needs an ordinance to adopt and the board can send councilors whatever they want, even if it is the ordinance the council recently tabled.

“I think you can take the ordinance you sent them in the first place and you can do what you want,” she said.

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

Board member Hilary Koch said that without an attorney present to represent the city, the discussion should be tabled. She said there were concerns about whether the board was acting properly and being fair to the developer, Jennifer Bergeron, and to the city.

“I want to know that we’re being fair to Jen; I want to know that we’re being fair to the city, and I want to know that we’re acting properly,” Koch said.

Board members said an attorney will be present at its next meeting.

The board voted 6-1 to postpone the discussion until Monday, July 26, with Uria Pelletier the lone dissenter. Beverage said no vote could be made at that meeting and the next meeting after that would be Monday, Aug. 2, as long as a venue could be found for it. While the council will start meeting in the basement of The Elm on College Avenue starting in August, the Planning Board cannot meet there Monday nights because the space is taken on Mondays, Beverage said. She said she was going to check with the schools Tuesday to see if a room at the Mid-Maine Technical Center may be used instead.

LIQUOR LICENSE TROUBLES

Meanwhile, another possible wrench has been thrown into the mix. State law prohibits a liquor license to be issued to any establishment within 300 feet of a church, and the Pleasant Street United Methodist Church could be within 300 feet of the former Sacred Heart Church property.

“I think that our ordinance says liquor licenses can’t be within 300 feet of a church, measured along the street line,” Beverage said when contacted Monday about the matter.

Also contacted earlier Monday, Laurence Sanborn, division director for liquor licensing enforcement and taxation review for the Maine Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations, said state law prohibits liquor licenses to be issued within 300 feet of a church, measuring from its main entrance to the main entrance of the place that wants to have alcohol. He said the state typically does not measure the distance until it receives an application for a liquor license.

The Rev. Thom Blackstone of the Pleasant Street United Methodist Church sent an email to Beverage saying that his church adds to the congestion on local streets during large funerals, weddings and Sunday services, and when Sacred Heart was an active congregation, the churches swapped off parking for church events to limit disruption to neighbors.

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, which includes a building behind the church. Amy Calder/Morning Sentinel file

“I assume an event center will not be planning their events around our church schedule, and simultaneous large events will cause numerous public safety issues for cars traveling through the area and pedestrian traffic (especially if some of those pedestrians or drivers have been drinking and are less than cautious),” Blackstone wrote in the email. “We have also tried to be accommodating to neighbors using our parking lot on occasion when needed (though we reserve the right to tow away cars that abuse the privilege or when we need to plow the parking lot).  Obviously, a large event center across the street will require us to limit all parking to ‘church use only,’ further exacerbating local congestion.”

Blackstone says in his email that United Methodists generally avoid having alcohol at church events to provide a safe space for those who are struggling to maintain sobriety.

“We have received concern from multiple church members in recovery that having large events in the neighborhood from which persons who have been drinking are exiting to their vehicles will be a significant trigger for those who are prone to addictive behaviors, who will be walking to their vehicles on the same sidewalks and streets,” Blackstone wrote. “Pre-pandemic, we had 12 recovery groups who met at the church, and several have already begun meeting again. We also host 24-hour-long alcohol-free events during Christmas and New Year’s Eve and Day. I am sure that we will feel obligated on behalf of the recovery community to resist the issuance of a liquor license to a facility within 300 feet of our building. I believe that this was one of the issues the framers of the zoning laws had in mind when putting distance between houses of worship and alcohol-serving establishments.”

A number of church members live in the neighborhood, according to Blackstone, who said they and others are “collectively troubled that the concerns of the neighbors, expressed to the Planning Board and City Council, were ignored in the Council vote the first time around.

“We are impressed that a petition with at least a hundred names of nearby residents has been circulating opposing this zoning change,” he continued. “We hope that our city leaders will give heed to those citizens who deserve to be heard.”

Finally, Blackstone says, Sacred Heart was designed as a sanctuary to accommodate, in part, Waterville’s vulnerable residents and while a congregation is no longer active in the building, the need for shelter and protection has not gone away.

“The Interfaith Council, of which we are a member, is desperately concerned about the looming need for affordable and senior housing in our city,” he said.  “The proposal before us assumes that one reason to turn this former house of God into a commercial establishment is to prevent it from being utilized for such housing. We are troubled by the idea that anyone would label some of our most vulnerable residents as incompatible with a vision of Waterville that is to be a playground for the privileged and comfortable. A community is woven together of persons of many ages, incomes and aspirations. The dream of a safe and affordable place to live is surely a dream worth fulfilling for all of us, not just for some.”

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