An apartment building on Park Street in Waterville is shown this week. The building is owned by First Church of Waterville, seen in the background, and is one of two apartment buildings the church wants to raze to expand its parking. It also needs additional land to provide a handicapped accessible entrance to the church. Anna Chadwick/Morning Sentinel

WATERVILLE — The First Church of Waterville’s plan to demolish two apartment buildings adjacent to it on Park Street to expand parking is drawing backlash from neighbors who are asking the city to delay the plan to explore whether the properties could fit into a historic district.

The church, founded in 1818 and built in 1826 as First Baptist Church, recently bought the buildings at 3 and 5 Park St. and a parking lot at 7 Park that has more than 21 spaces, but the zone the properties are in does not allow parking uses at 3 and 5 Park.

Residents of Park Place, which is perpendicular to Park Street and runs along the church parking lot, emailed a letter Tuesday to city officials expressing concern about the plan to tear the buildings down when affordable housing is scarce and the zoning there doesn’t allow parking.

“The city’s codes permit a demolition permit to be approved without any public hearing and prior to a zoning change,” the email said. “This is a terrible precedent that will destroy the historic tapestry of our neighborhood and wipe out more housing without replacements.”

The email, from Robert Dombroski, Larkin Silverman, Nancy Williams and Raffael Scheck, asks the city to pass a demolition delay ordinance and survey the properties for eventual inclusion into a historic district to protect and improve neighborhoods.

State Rep. Colleen Madigan, who represents District 64, got involved in the matter when residents and officials from area churches reached out to her for help. She said they oppose razing apartment buildings during the housing crisis.


“There are elderly people that have housing vouchers staying in the homeless shelter because there’s not enough housing,” Madigan said.

But the church’s senior minister, Stephen Meidahl, said the property the church purchased is largely an existing parking lot and “includes two buildings with a total of five upscale former apartments surrounded by paved parking with zero green space.”

The buildings include a duplex at 3 Park St. that is within 10 feet of the back wall of the church, and a former funeral home at 5 Park that existed as a commercial space for decades, Meidahl said in an email this week to neighbors.

“The buildings are not historic in any way and are now, with one exception, mostly uninhabitable,” he said. Furnaces, fixtures, toilets, sinks and showers were removed from the former apartments before the church bought them.

Meidahl said no tenants were forced to move and the church bought the “decommissioned” apartments with only one remaining tenant, who will live there rent-free until the lease expires Dec. 31. He said nonprofit churches are not allowed to be for-profit landlords without tax consequences.

“We are fully represented by counsel and are following all current legal requirements,” his email said. “The letter asks the city to change current ordinance to target First Church. This would be an unprecedented request if followed.”


Meidahl pointed to a similar instance where Ware-Butler Building Supply demolished houses within a few blocks of the church “with no corresponding concerns.”

“Why the city is asked to change current ordinance simply to satisfy the concerns of four disgruntled people with no legal standing in regard to our church and its property is beyond legal precedent,” his email said.

He said the church, the oldest public building in the city, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the apartment buildings are not, and a federal act provides that churches can’t be inhibited by zoning that restricts religious assembly in any way.

“Zoning that seeks to inhibit religious assembly is reportable to the Department of Justice,” he said.

Meidahl said Friday in a phone interview that since he became minister at the church three years ago, the congregation has increased from only eight people to 200. Besides needing extra parking, the church needs to build a fully accessible entrance at the rear of the church, which has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on restoring the building.

“Our goal is to bring it back to its pristine glory,” he said.


Meidahl said he is not sure when the adjacent buildings will be torn down.

City Planner Ann Beverage advised Meidahl this week that 3, 5 and 7 Park St. were rezoned from Residential-D to Contract Zoned District Commercial-A in March 2020. The amended zoning says 5 Park St. may be used only as a beauty salon and spa, professional office or residences, 3 Park shall continue to be used as two residential apartments and 7 Park shall continue to be used as a parking lot only.

The zoning was changed to allow for a hairdressing and spa business to move to 3 and 5 Park, and the conditions of the contract were intended to preserve the residential character of the abutting neighborhood. The business never moved there, however. Some neighbors during that time expressed concern about increased traffic on Park Place and asked that entry to the parking lot be from Park Street and not Park Place.

Since then, the number of parishioners at the church has substantially increased and when church services are held, the parking lot typically overflows with people parking along the streets.

City Solicitor William A. Lee III said the federal act Meidahl has cited is meant to protect religious freedom for churches and prisoners. It basically prohibits zoning and land use laws that present a substantial burden to the religious exercise of churches unless the government has a compelling interest in imposing restrictions. In this case, the government could argue that it needs to preserve housing in light of the current housing crisis.

“Is that a compelling reason? I wouldn’t say one way or the other, off the top of my head,” Lee said Thursday.


He said he just heard about the church issue this week and he doesn’t have all the facts.

“I’m not going to issue a legal opinion until I’m confident of what all the facts are,” Lee said. “What I really do wonder about is, why was the property purchased when it’s under a contract zone that prohibits a use that they are proposing to use?”

The city could amend the current contract zoning, with input from both the church and the neighbors, according to Lee.

“My hope would be that they would talk with each other to try to work this out,” he said.

A message left for Waterville Code Enforcement Director Dan Bradstreet, asking whether his office will issue a demolition permit to the church or wait until the zoning issue is worked out, was not returned.

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