September 21, 2019
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Portland takes fight to turn portion of West End church into office space to Maine Supreme Court

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
The Williston-West Church on Thomas Street in Portland's upscale West End is at the center of a development controversy.

BANGOR, Maine — The city of Portland took its fight with West End neighbors over the rezoning of a historic church and parish house so it could be developed for commercial use to the state’s high court when justices convened Tuesday at the Penobscot Judicial Center.

“The city knows better than the courts what is best for the city,” attorney Patricia A. McAllister of Portland told the justices.

Orlando E. Delogu, a professor emeritus from the University of Maine School of Law who lives in the neighborhood, urged justices to uphold the lower court decision favoring citizens opposed to the zoning change. Representing himself, Delogu said the city’s actions did “not hold up under scrutiny.”

“There’s no neighborhood livability enhancement and no economic development [justification] for the decision,” he said Tuesday.

Portland attorney Bruce A. McGlauflin, who represented a neighborhood group, said the city did not properly balance the proposed commercial use of the church with the goals outlined in the city’s comprehensive plan.

“The plan says that economic development is supposed to happen downtown, not in neighborhoods,” he told the justices.

Portland appealed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court a decision issued earlier this year by Superior Court Justice Joyce Wheeler in Cumberland County. 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.

“The home occupations use explicitly limits the scale of the business because only one nonresident employee is permitted,” Wheeler wrote in her decision. “Majella’s proposed office space would allow up to 14 non-resident employees at one time. This is a substantial increase in the number of employees, and it is not ‘so limited as to be compatible’ with other residential uses in the zone as required for home occupations.”

The judge also rejected city arguments that the change complied with calls in the comprehensive plan to preserve historic buildings and promote job creation, saying owners of historically protected structures must maintain them even without rezoning, and that there is commercial space elsewhere in the city to accommodate Majella without disturbing the West End residential zone.

Questions from the justices Tuesday focused on how else the building might be used and the fact that the layout will not allow employees to park on site.

The parish house could be turned into apartments or condominiums, but the historic balcony in the building and the stained glass would be lost, McAlister said. Other permitted uses would be institutional, such as a school, a group home or hospital.

Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley did not participate in oral arguments in the case. Justices are not required to explain why they recuse themselves.

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.

There is no timetable under which the justices must issue their decision.

BDN writer Seth Koenig contributed to this report.

 



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