WATERVILLE, Maine — A hardware company’s proposed plans to renovate the former Sacred Heart Church rectory into offices, a move that some neighbors oppose, will need to wait while city officials take a closer look at rezoning and its effects on a residential neighborhood.
Ware-Butler Building Supply is seeking to rezone 74 Pleasant St. from a residential to a contract-zoned commercial area, which would allow the offices and conference space for administrative staff at a company that has seen major growth since 2020.
This request comes after the company has already demolished three houses on North and Pleasant streets.
Waterville’s Planning Board voted 4-2 to recommend rezoning the property last week, but members failed to provide their reasoning, which goes against the city’s zoning ordinance, Solicitor William Lee said. The City Council, which considered the issue Tuesday, voted 5-0 to send it back to the Planning Board.
Ware-Butler’s rezoning plans have sparked questions about the company’s plans, the lack of housing in Waterville and what can happen when a company’s presence grows stronger in a residential area, where some want the neighborhood’s character to remain unchanged. Tuesday’s meeting suggested a larger conversation needs to happen about how 74 Pleasant St. and other church property should be handled.
Councilor Claude Francke, who has opposed the rezoning, suggested sending the proposal back to the Planning Board. He found serious issues with the procedure for contract zoning and wants a clear explanation for why it’s needed, he said.
Resident Rien Finch, who lives in the neighborhood, said the city needs a long-term zoning plan, and councilors continue to allow commercial sprawl in residential areas.
“I think the council should, quite frankly, stop these spot zones until they can come up with some kind of cohesive plan,” Finch said. “This isn’t fair to the residents. It keeps happening all across the city.”
Planning Board member Hilary Koch agreed that the item needs to be looked at again, particularly how it fits into Waterville’s comprehensive plan. It’s important for the Planning Board to do its job properly, even if people are unhappy with the recommendations, and members did not do that last week, she said.
“From a personal standpoint, the meeting went long,” she said. “We were all exhausted. I can’t explain what happened.”
A few residents spoke about the former Sacred Heart church, which Ware-Butler’s chief operating officer recently said could be demolished, though the company is open to other ideas.
“That would be, in my opinion, pretty catastrophic,” resident Brian McArthur said. “There are very few structures left in this city of Waterville that have not suffered destruction at the hands of progress over the decades. That is an architectural gem.”
McArthur pointed to projects across the country where churches were transformed into condominiums and other rental properties. The council should stand firm and not just cater to a business, no matter how local or successful that company may be, he said.
McArthur later noted he was pleased to see that Ware-Butler purchased the property, but that he’d like to see the church developed in a way that benefits the city.
While several councilors reiterated the proposal before them was about the rectory and not the church, Koch reminded them Ware-Butler owns the church and can choose to tear down the property.
Alan Orcutt, chief operating officer for Ware-Butler, said the company is being sensitive to the community’s concerns. He has been in contact with a developer who expressed some interest in development of the church and rectory into housing, he said.
“Assuming that there can be an addressing of the utilities and sewer and all the things, there are potentially 10 to 12 units that could be done in the church and three or four units in the rectory,” he said.
The company is willing to be patient for the next four to six months and see how ideas develop, Orcutt said, suggesting there is a way to address both housing and the company’s needs. The rezoning proposal still should be considered because Ware-Butler needs the office space, he said.
“We’d like to keep the ball rolling toward that and then in good faith, pledge to the city that we’ll definitely be receptive and patient to explore what ideas come forward,” he said.