BREWER, Maine — When The Rock Church applied for a permit to expand its North Brewer Shopping Plaza location in January, city officials discovered that churches are not allowed in the strip mall because of zoning.
The church ended up moving to Bangor, but Brewer was informed recently that the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the city’s zoning and land use practices for churches, City Manager Steve Bost confirmed.
“Our investigation will focus on how the city’s zoning law treats religious land uses and the justification therefore,” Steven Rosenbaum, chief of housing and civil enforcement for the Justice Department, said in a letter to the city. “We also are reviewing, as part of our investigation, the city’s denial of the Rock Church’s application for permission to expand.”
The Rock Church was allowed to move into the North Brewer Shopping Plaza in 2009, but when it asked to expand to 14,000 square feet earlier this year, Ben Breadmore, Brewer’s code enforcement officer, discovered that it couldn’t because of zoning rules.
“We realized at the time [they wanted to expand] that they’re not legally allowed there,” Breadmore said.
Because the church had been operating out of the shopping plaza for three years, the city deemed it a legal, nonconforming use but denied its application to expand.
Church officials and Dana Cassidy, the owner of the property, said they were upset about the expansion’s denial, but church officials never filed an appeal of Breadmore’s Feb. 17 decision and instead decided to move before their lease expired in April.
Still, Cassidy said he and church officials, through their attorneys, both sent letters to the city stating the expansion denial violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which is the law cited in Justice Department’s letter.
When the land use code problem arose earlier this year, the city tasked Breadmore with fixing it, Bost said.
“What Ben did was to recommend to the council that modifications be made to the ordinance to make sure the city was not discriminating against houses of worship,” the city manager said.
The problem occurred because the updated land use code placed churches into assembly groups barred from convenience business zoning, a difference from the code in place in 2009 when the church moved into the shopping center, Breadmore said.
Brewer city councilors on Tuesday amended the land use code to again allow churches in the convenience business zoning district.
The Justice Department requested that the city provide a decade’s worth of documents that fall under 11 separate categories, including any applications by churches and nonreligious assembly entities, such as bars and clubs, for occupancy permits, special exceptions, rezoning, special use permits, site plan review approval, and amendments to the city’s comprehensive plan.
A copy of the land use code in use and copies of any previous land use codes or comprehensive plans, zoning ordinances or other regulations, citations, notices of violations and orders to cease a certain use were also requested.
In addition, the letter asks for a list of current and former city code or inspection employees, and all communications about The Rock Church or the shopping plaza at 391 North Main St.
“They’re on a fact-finding mission,” said Breadmore, who is compiling all the requested data. “It’s to make sure the city is not treating churches differently.”