Jim Stevenson, one of the residents of Birch Lane, lives in the house at the left -- just across a gully from the tent recently erected by Chris Colby. The tent is used for church services, and it's one of the concerns that Birch Lane residents have with Colby and his family. Credit: Abigail Curtis | BDN

SEARSPORT, Maine — Nearly two weeks ago, the Searsport code enforcement officer hand-delivered a letter to a landowner who’s been hosting large outdoor church services on his oceanfront property, telling him the town’s zoning prohibits such activities in a residential area.

But the twice-weekly services of the Calvary Chapel Belfast, which draw as many as 200 worshippers to the property, haven’t stopped.

And neighbors aren’t happy.

“It’s an absolute nightmare,” Joanna Owen, who lives in the McGrath subdivision, told Searsport selectmen Tuesday night about the escalating tensions in her neighborhood.

She and others said they’ve contended with construction noise, smoke and soot from brushfires set on the property and concerns about a potential COVID-19 outbreak from the crowded church services, and she wants town officials to do something about it.

“It’s so uncomfortable for any of us to leave our houses,” Owen said. “We feel unsafe in Searsport.”

Landowner Chris Colby, who’s hosted the church-goers under a big white tent on his property since July 23, had nothing to say on Wednesday about his neighbor’s comments, and acknowledged he hasn’t yet responded to the town’s warning.

As for the gatherings?

“We’ll continue,” Colby said.

Searsport Town Manager James Gillway said institutional activities — whether it’s church or school — are prohibited in the area where Colby and his neighbors live. If the matter can’t be resolved, the next step is court, but he is working with both sides to find a solution.

“One side or the other side — or both sides — may not like the end result, but we’re going to do the job of the town,” Gillway said. “Everyone has rights. We’re going to try to get to a solution here.”

The bad blood between Colby and his neighbors pre-dates the church services. Birch Lane neighbors believe town officials engaged in a potentially illegal land swap this January, when the town offered Chris and Diane-Marie Colby a tax-seized parcel on Birch Lane in exchange for a parcel the town wanted near the cemetery on the Mount Ephraim Road. The Birch Lane property was connected to land the Colbys already owned behind the Searsport Veterinary Hospital.

An attorney who had been working with the McGrath subdivision neighbors characterized the swap last month as a “secret, backroom deal,” and moreover that the deed from the town to the Colbys was written incorrectly. Neighbors believe the deed accidentally conveys five parcels of land within the subdivision to the Colbys that the town never owned, along with an interest in Birch Lane, a private dirt road which is plowed and maintained by the residents.

For Owen, whose two lots were among those conveyed to the Colbys, the fact that the town has yet to correct the deed is infuriating.

“You can’t convey what you didn’t foreclose on,” she said, adding that it’s not complicated to write a corrective deed. “This could be done in a day. Instead, we’re three and a half weeks into this.”

But solving some of the other issues seem harder to fix. Among them is the Colbys’ plan to bulldoze roads through a forested gully to connect their house to Birch Lane and the nearby beach. Neighbors are also frustrated by activities they feel impinge on their own private property rights, they told selectmen. Those include burning brush, setting off fireworks, operating loud ATVs and noise from the church services, which feature amplified music from a drummer, a guitar player and a singer.

Elizabeth Greenberg of Birch Lane told the selectmen that she is worried the large gatherings of people who aren’t social distancing and aren’t wearing masks could lead to an outbreak of COVID-19.

She referenced the outbreak that began at a wedding in the Katahdin region on Aug. 7 and has been linked to 143 cases so far. Another outbreak at Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford, whose pastor officiated the East Millinocket wedding, has infected at least five people.

“That scares me,” she said.

Pastor Greg Huston has been leading outdoor services for Calvary Chapel Belfast at an oceanside property in Searsport this summer. Credit: Courtesy of Greg Huston

But Greg Huston, the pastor of Calvary Chapel Belfast, an offshoot of Calvary Chapel Bangor in Orrington, said he doesn’t think his church is posing a danger. They aren’t enforcing strict social distancing and mask wearing, he said, but they’re also not against those things.

“We really, truly want people to have the freedom to choose. We believe they do have such a right,” he said. “My personal convictions are that I’m not too worried about another outbreak. I think it’s not as severe as it’s been painted. But everyone’s in a different place.”

He said the church, which has a focus on helping people with substance-use disorders and unhealthy lifestyles, used to hold multiple weekly services elsewhere. It now only holds two weekly services.

“We stripped it down to be respectful of neighbors,” he said.

And Calvary Chapel only plans to meet on Colby’s property temporarily.

“Just maybe a few months, he said, “until it gets real cold.”

If they built a physical church on the property, Huston said, it would be a clear violation of the town’s residential zoning ordinance. But gathering under a tent doesn’t seem as problematic.

“Take away the title of church, and what’s to say a neighbor couldn’t have 60 to 100 people hanging out and drinking beer?” he asked, adding that private property rights are at play here. “You should expect that a person has rights on the land they’ve purchased.”

But Michael Housman, who was one of a dozen or so neighbors who pleaded their case to the board of selectmen this week, didn’t agree. He described a “constant barrage of noise” and said this week, an ATV went back and forth right by his windows for more than an hour.

“I think the neighborhood’s being terrorized. I’ve talked to neighbors who are actually scared to speak out. They’re afraid they poked the bear,” he said. “You folks really need to think very carefully about what you want Searsport to become … right now, it’s a simmering pot that’s about to boil over. Something’s got to give.”