PORTLAND, Maine — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Thursday dealt a blow to West End neighbors’ opposition to renovation plans for a historic church and parish house and handed a victory to city officials.
The court unanimously reversed a lower court’s decision that said the developer’s plans violated Portland’s comprehensive plan.
Justice Donald Alexander directed Superior Court Justice Joyce Wheeler in Cumberland County to affirm the decision of the Portland City Council.
“Based on the evidence before it and its mandate to consider existing
and permitted uses, the City Council concluded that the proposed use was in basic harmony with uses in the neighborhood, which it described to ‘include a mix of residential, commercial and institutional uses,’” he wrote in his 13-page decision.
“The city is pleased to receive today’s decision from the Maine Law Court in Remmel et al v. City of Portland,” city spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said in a statement Thursday afternoon. “The Law Court vacated the lower court’s decision and mandated that it affirm the City Council’s well reasoned approval of the conditional zone agreement authorizing the rehabilitation of the historic Williston-West Church in Portland’s west end. Overall, this decision confirmed our understanding of this area of Maine law and allows an important project to move forward.”
Bruce A. McGlauflin, the Portland attorney representing the neighbors who sued the city, said in an email that his clients “are very disappointed.”
“The Court vacated a well-reasoned Superior Court decision,” McGlauflin wrote. “This decision effectively gives municipalities free rein to rezone individual properties through contract zoning. And, it severely limits property owners’ ability to rely on state law restrictions and comprehensive plans to protect their property from contract zoning in their neighborhoods.”
The ruling was 6-0 because Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley recused herself from the case for reasons that were not made public.
The justices heard oral arguments in the case on Sept. 9 when it convened at the Penobscot Judicial Center.
Portland appealed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court a decision issued earlier this year by Wheeler in a court in Portland. She sided with residents who said the city made a mistake when it voted 6-3 in 2012 in favor of rezoning the church property, located at 32 Thomas St., to allow office space in the R-4 residential zone in question.
The court fight began when a group of a dozen neighborhood residents filed a lawsuit in July 2012 contesting the city’s decision, which would have opened the door for Frank Monsour’s plan to make a portion of the 19th century church the new American home base for his mobile data systems company, Majella Global Technologies.
Monsour plans to convert the parish house, where Sunday School classes were held, into a personal residence and 2,800 square feet of office space to accommodate 14 employees, according to a previously published report.
Wheeler ruled that provisions on the books that allow “home occupations” cannot be stretched to include an operation such as the one Monsour hoped to run in the former church.
Alexander, on behalf of the state’s high court, disagreed.
“While the scale of the proposed use would no doubt be greater than that of a home occupation, the [conditional zoning agreement] imposes a number of restraints to ensure that the proposed office use remains limited and ‘neighborhood compatible,’ including that the business must provide off-site parking for its employees and must occupy no more than seventeen percent of the property, reserving the second and third floors for residential use,” he wrote. “These conditions limit the ‘external activity levels and impacts’ of Majella’s business in the same way that would be required of a home occupation that is permitted in the R-4 zone.”
The Williston-West Church was active as a place of worship from 1877 until 2011, according to court documents, and it was put on the market in 2011 after its congregation merged with that of the Immanuel Baptist Church. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places.
BDN writer Seth Koenig contributed to this report.