PORTLAND — The city’s Planning Board has approved a controversial zoning change that would allow an Australian businessman to convert a historic West End church’s parish house into office space.

After more than three hours of deliberation Tuesday night, the board voted 5-2 to approve a conditional zoning agreement that gives Frank Monsour the ability to establish offices in the Williston-West Church complex at 26-32 Thomas St.

Under the agreement, which still must be approved by the City Council, Monsour would restore the church’s 135-year-old sanctuary for use as a venue for meetings and other events and convert the parish house into office space for up to 14 workers.

In addition to serving as headquarters of Monsour’s startup software development company, Majella Global Technologies, the parish house would serve as his family’s residence when they are in the United States.

The proposal requires city approval because the church – it was sold to Monsour last year – is located in the West End neighborhood, a zone that only permits residential uses.

Planning Board members were charged with determining whether Monsour’s proposal was “in harmony” with the city’s comprehensive plan, which frowns on development encroaching on residential neighborhoods.

“This is a hard one to see as a black and white issue,” said board member David Silk. “There are competing issues and competing ideas.”

Board members said they liked the fact that Monsour was going to preserve the church’s historic sanctuary for concerts and meetings, but they were concerned about the impact his office complex would have on one of the city’s oldest and more upscale neighborhoods.

Two workshops on Monsour’s proposal were held this month. Public comment was not allowed Tuesday, but about 30 West End residents came to City Hall to listen.

Board members Carol Morrissette, Stuart O’Brien, Timothy Dean, Bill Hall and Patrick Venne supported the zoning change, while Joe Lewis and Silk voted against it.

Venne called the proposal a “small-scale office building,” adding, “I don’t see this as being any kind of a threat to the neighborhood.”

Lewis said he didn’t believe the proposal was consistent with existing permitted uses — a stipulation of the city’s Comprehensive Plan.

“My gut is to do nothing, to take the do-no-harm method,” Lewis said.

Built in 1877, the Williston-West sanctuary was designed by Francis Fassett, a prominent architect.

In 1904, John Calvin Stevens, Portland’s most famous architect, built the parish house.

The church is on the National Registry of Historic Places.

“An effort to save this building is something we can all agree on,” said Morrissette, the board chairwoman.

“Overall, I think this meets the goals of the Comprehensive Plan.”

Dean noted that some neighbors have attempted to compare Monsour’s office space project with perceived intrusions – also known as “creep” – into the West End’s residential neighborhoods by Maine Medical Center and Waynflete School.

“I don’t think you can compare this with Maine Med and Waynflete. It’s a different entity,” Dean said.

The board agreed to a stipulation that Monsour provide an annual report to the city detailing the improvements he has made to the church.

The City Council is expected to review the proposal at one of its meetings in June.

 

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: [email protected]