BREWER, Maine — When The Rock Church was denied a permit to expand at its North Brewer Shopping Plaza location in January 2012 due to zoning rules, the U.S. Department of Justice started an investigation into the city’s zoning and land-use practices for churches.
City officials have made changes to the zoning and land use rules to address the Justice Department’s concerns, and on Monday will discuss allowing churches in five additional zones, Ben Breadmore, Brewer’s code enforcement officer, said in a memo to city councilors.
Brewer City Council, at its September meeting, voted to allow churches in the convenience and businesses zone “in order to come into conformity with the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person Act, or RLUIPA,” Breadmore said.
“After further review of the zones it is our feeling that at this time a change be made to the land use code in order to allow for churches within the rural, general business, industrial, office residential and professional business zone,” the code officer said.
The planning board discussed allowing churches in the five new zones at their Jan. 7 meeting and unanimously endorsed the move and issued a recommendation to the City Council.
“This step represents the last item on the DOJ’s checklist the city needed to do to address the issue,” City Manager Steve Bost said Saturday.
The changes may satisfy the Department of Justice, but they come too late to prevent The Rock Church from leaving Brewer.
The congregation decided to move back into its original Bangor location, which they have since expanded to meet their growing population.
The Rock Church was allowed to move into the North Brewer Shopping Plaza at 391 North Main St. in 2009, but when operators asked to expand to 14,000 square feet in January 2012, Breadmore discovered that the church was not legally allowed to be there because of zoning rules.
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.
A federal judge in November also dismissed a religious discrimination lawsuit against the city of Brewer over its denial of the requested Rock Church expansion, brought forth by Dana Cassidy, who owns the shopping mall and lost a big tenant when the church left.
The operators of the Rock Church never appealed the expansion permit denial to the Brewer board of appeals, and U.S. District Judge D. Brock Hornby found that the lawsuit should not have been filed until after the appeals board had a chance to review the code officer’s decision.
BDN reporter Judy Harrison contributed to this story.