WATERVILLE, Maine — Some residents and elected officials fear a hardware company’s plans for Pleasant Street are damaging the neighborhood’s residential character and could lead to unintended consequences as the company continues to grow.
Ware-Butler Building Supply has already demolished three houses — one on North Street next to its retail store and two on Pleasant Street — and it hopes to renovate a former rectory at 74 Pleasant St. to be used as offices and conference space.
Ware-Butler is seeking to rezone that address from a residential to a contract-zoned commercial area, which would allow the company to use the rectory for business offices. A contract zone means that if Ware-Butler has plans other than offices for that space, the area would revert to residential, although that doesn’t guarantee the rectory would be preserved.
The Planning Board this week voted 4-2 to recommend rezoning 74 Pleasant St., but Ware-Butler cannot move forward without approval of the City Council, which will consider the issue during its next meeting Tuesday.
Debates over Ware-Butler’s long-term plans have repeatedly come up during Waterville City Council and Planning Board meetings. Company officials have said they do not intend to expand retail operations at 74 Pleasant St. But at the heart of a discussion about rezoning is the neighborhood’s character — and how, in a city experiencing many changes, the qualities that make it residential and charming are slowly evaporating.
Ware-Butler has grown from about 39 employees at three stores to 340 employees at 15 locations since Chris and Jason Brochu of Pleasant River Lumber acquired the hardware company in 2020, according to Alan Orcutt, the chief operating officer.
A larger company requires a different overhead structure — human resources and accounting departments, for example — and they need space to work in Waterville, where the company’s headquarters are based, said Orcutt.
Some locals are also wary about Pleasant Street’s transformation amid a housing crisis. Samantha Burdick, Blanning Board chair, has suggested 74 Pleasant St. could be used for multifamily housing and that it’s easier to remake an existing property than to build new homes in today’s economic climate.
Although Ware-Butler is a good neighbor and the city is glad the company chose to establish headquarters locally, “this massive sprawl” is concerning, Burdick said in a meeting this week.
Ware-Butler officials are also considering what to do with the former Sacred Heart Church at 72 Pleasant St., and a “conscientious demolition” is more than likely, Orcutt said, noting the company is receptive to other ideas from the city, Colby College and others.
“If they’re going to use this [rectory] for office space, let’s not be silly. We know they’re going to continue to grow,” said Hilary Koch, a Planning Board member. “Can they occupy this space in a way that isn’t impinging on neighbors and being disruptive? That’s really the question that we’re trying to answer.”
This isn’t the first time that residents are pushing back against neighborhood changes. An event center was proposed for the former church, but plans were thrown out during the summer of 2021 after neighbors opposed them, according to the Morning Sentinel.
Pleasant Street resident Laurie Trefethen opposed the event center, but in hindsight, she would rather have had that in the neighborhood than see a beautiful church demolished, she said.
“This is our home,” she said. “I don’t want to live in a commercial area. All the construction done on Main Street has shifted traffic to Pleasant Street and coming out of your driveway or walking, you have to be really, really careful. The speed limit is low, but nobody pays attention, and you have a school down the street.”
Councilor Claude Francke, who lives about two blocks from Pleasant Street and represents the area, has expressed disappointment in Ware-Butler for not approaching him to discuss its plans. The church and rectory properties are surrounded by churches and various housing, and a large hardware company isn’t compatible with this section of town, he said Thursday.
Despite the serious need for housing in Waterville and other ideas that have been proposed, such as renovating the church into space for council meetings and other uses, some people don’t see a problem with Ware-Butler’s activity. It’s a business that doesn’t owe the city or residents anything, and its expansion was anticipated, they have argued.
“I think we should have a conversation about [Ware-Butler’s] future and the city’s future,” Francke said. “I really don’t see them being inconsistent. I think if we sit down and talk we can get everybody on the same page of the playbook.”