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

WATERVILLE — About a dozen neighbors urged the Planning Board Monday to recommend the City Council reject a request to rezone the former Sacred Heart Catholic Church property on Pleasant and Middle streets so it can become an events center.

The neighbors said they fear such a center would serve alcohol, accommodate more than 300 people and host events late into the night, dramatically changing the existing nature of the neighborhood and altering area residents’ quality of life.

Members of the Planning Board ultimately voted 7-0 to continue public discussion on the matter at their next meeting, scheduled for Aug. 24, and vote on a memorandum to send to the council that includes a recommendation on whether to rezone the property.

The memorandum would include how rezoning would be consistent or not consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan, according to officials.

About 35 people turned out for Monday’s public hearing, held at the Waterville Junior High School cafeteria, following months of heated debate about the proposal.

The review process for the plan is essentially being redone after a city legal opinion concluded officials had made a series of missteps. The council had been moving toward approving the project, despite fears of lawsuits.

After about 2 1/2 hours of comments and debate, board members decided not to vote on a recommendation Monday because some people watching the meeting remotely, including board member Hilary Koch, said they could not hear what was being said early in the meeting.

Kate Roy addresses the Waterville Planning Board on Monday at Waterville Junior High School. Amy Calder/Morning Sentinel

Board Chair Samantha Burdick reminded attendees the board had voted at its last meeting to approve an ordinance related to providing people access to meetings remotely. She recommended the board not take a vote Monday on the Sacred Heart issue because some members of the public could not hear the discussion.

“It violates the ordinance that we passed last week,” Burdick said.

City Planner Ann Beverage said board meetings going forward would be held Tuesday nights instead of the usual Monday, and on dates, the council does not meet. The council is scheduled to meet the first and third Tuesday of each month. Meetings will now be held in the basement of The Elm at 21 College Ave., where the city has set up special equipment for live-streaming. Burdick said the equipment there should not cause visual or auditory problems.

‘BEING SINGLED OUT’

Portland lawyer James N. Katsiaficas of the law firm Perkins Thompson was at Monday’s meeting because he is representing the city in the church issue. The lawyer representing the neighbors, Thomas E. Schoening of Drummond & Drummond of Portland, was also present.

Jennifer Bergeron and her partners comprise BACAS, which is asking the council to rezone 72 Pleasant and 5 Middle streets from Residential-B and Residential-D to Contract-Zoned District Commercial-A.

Katsiaficas said the board must address three standards related to whether the rezoning request is consistent with the goals and policies in the city’s comprehensive plan.

He said the board must answer whether the proposed use of the property would be consistent with the existing use and whether the area to be rezoned would be consistent with the district it is in. For instance, Katsiaficas said, the board must see what is permitted in that district, such as single-family homes, compared to what is being proposed. He also said the board must look at whether conditions are being proposed related to the zoning district itself, such as hours of operation, occupancy limits or event limits.

The board does not have authority to make zoning changes, but it makes a recommendation to the City Council, which has the final say.

Katsiaficas said the council vote must be a supermajority to approve a zone change, meaning approval would require five votes in favor. The Planning Board, he said, must provide reasons to the council for its recommendation because the council has to look at the issues under state law.

One of the requirements in the ordinance related to contract zoning is that a request for rezoning must come from the property owner, according to Katsiaficas. The property is owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, which has entered into a purchase and sale agreement with BACAS, he said. He said since such an agreement is in place, the board can continue its deliberations.

“It’s not a speculative matter,” he said. “This is a for-real application.”

Schoening, who represents 10 neighbors living near the church property, had sent a long letter to the board in which he said the comprehensive plan says the city should promote growth, but it also should provide vibrant residential neighborhoods that are great places to live and raise children.

Putting an events center — with late-night activities, alcohol consumption, music and noise — into a quiet, residential neighborhood would significantly impact that neighborhood, according to Schoening.

“I think it decreases the safety,” he said, “and it makes this neighborhood undesirable.”

He urged the board recommend the council not approve the request to rezone because it is not consistent with the comprehensive plan and the existing and permitted used in the Residential-D and B zones. Any restrictions and conditions proposed would be hard to enforce, he said.

Tommy Swider, a partner in BACAS, said the plan is to have weddings, memorial services, life celebrations, birthday parties and community events in the center. He listed all the ways BACAS believes the proposal is consistent with the comprehensive plan.

Swider said the plan requires the city protect and preserve the unique architectural heritage of neighborhoods, and the church would be protected and preserved with BACAS’ money, not taxpayer money.

The plan also stipulates the city encourage owner-occupied housing, and the church rectory would be occupied by the owner; the city should address blighted buildings, and the church runs the risk of becoming blighted if not preserved; and the city should improve the local economy by creating jobs, expanding the tax base and creating economic growth, which the project would do, according to Swider.

He said people using the center would spend money in the city to eat, shop, use caterers and florists and support other businesses.

“There’s money to be brought into the city of Waterville simply by having us there,” he said, adding, “existing uses are zero — absolutely none.”

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland did not sell alcohol when the church was operating, but it was permitted to do so, Swider said. He also said the city approved building a New Dimensions Credit Union in a residential area, and there are other examples of commercial uses in residential zones.

“I don’t understand why this one is being singled out and told it can’t exist,” he said.

NEIGHBORS SPEAK OUT

Opponents to rezoning said a credit union or bank is much different than an events center that is open late at night, serves alcohol, hosts loud music and includes hundreds of people slamming car doors as they leave.

Bergeron said music in stone buildings does not go outside and BACAS does not want sound coming out of the building. Everyone has a different point of view, according to Bergeron, who said if she is standing outside a building and hears music, she loves it.

“Obviously, we just have a divide in what we enjoy in a neighborhood,” she said.

Bergeron said she has tried to address neighbors’ concerns, but church neighbor Kate Roy disputed that.

Kate Roy addresses the Waterville Planning Board on Monday at Waterville Junior High School. Amy Calder/Morning Sentinel

“I’m just flabbergasted at your lack of ability to listen to us and work with us to compromise,” Roy said.

Neighbors approached the microphone, one by one, to express concerns.

Thomas DePre, father of Planning Board member Tom DePre, said he called a number of event centers in the area and they all told him they close at 10 p.m. And if they have live music, they close at 9 p.m.

The Planning Board had recommended a closing time of 9 p.m. for the events center, but Bergeron said that would be too early.

The City Council more recently extended the recommendation to 11 p.m. on weekdays and midnight on Saturdays.

Neighbor Linda DerSimonian said she has lived on Middle Street for 40 years and is strongly opposed to having an events center there.

Linda DerSimonian speaks Monday to the Waterville Planning Board in opposition to turning Sacred Heart Church into an events center. Amy Calder/Morning Sentinel

“It is not the right fit for our long-established residential neighborhood, and not equitable that the investment of my home will be devalued and the quality of my life diminished,” she said. “I accept that change has to come, but our lives should be uplifted by change, not lowered.”

Maureen Ausbrook, a minister at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, said an events center is not a good use for the church, and she advised a commission be formed to explore possible uses for the property. She urged the board not recommend rezoning.

“There’s a rule in medical ethics: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you ought,” she said.

Former State Rep. Marilyn Canavan, a lifelong Waterville resident and former head of the Maine Ethics Commission, recommended a heritage center be developed at the church, and asked Bergeron to join her in that effort.

“I would ask Ms. Bergeron to join me in a fundraising effort to create a heritage museum at the church, in lieu of an event center,” Canavan said. “The church would be perfect venue to display and to celebrate the rich history of Waterville.

“The city was and is the melting pot, once a sanctuary for Lebanese, Franco-American and Jewish immigrants, some fleeing conflict and persecution, others aspiring to create a better life for themselves and their families than the one they left.”

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