A judge has ruled that the Portland City Council erred in 2012 when it rezoned the site of a historic church in the West End so the building could be used as office space.
Superior Court Justice Joyce Wheeler ruled last week that the rezoning, which many residents opposed, was not consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan, which guides development throughout the city.
The Williston-West Church was purchased in 2011 by Frank Monsour, an Australian businessman who wants to use the parish house as the U.S. headquarters for his technology development startup, Majella Global Technologies.
Offices, other than small home offices, are not allowed in Portland’s residential zones. In 2012, the council voted 6-3 to rezone 32 Thomas St., with conditions, so Monsour and his family could convert as much as 2,800 square feet of the parish house into office space for as many as 14 employees, who would park elsewhere.
A dozen West End residents appealed the council’s decision to Cumberland County Superior Court.
Monsour has already done some work on the church, and Majella Global Technologies’ website lists the property as its U.S. headquarters.
City attorney Danielle West-Chuhta said the judge’s decision was “disappointing” and the city is still considering whether to appeal.
The city’s comprehensive plan says that businesses in residential zones are supposed to serve the needs of the neighborhoods. An office does not fit that description, Wheeler ruled.
The judge also rejected the city’s argument that the project would foster economic development, since the business was already in the commercial district of Congress Street. Majella Global Technologies leased office space previously in the Time and Temperature Building downtown.
The council concluded that the new use of the church was needed to generate revenue to restore the building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. But Wheeler ruled that the historic nature of the church would have been preserved through the city’s historic preservation ordinance.
Bruce McGlauflin, the attorney who represented the residents, said the ruling should be a warning to municipal councils and planning boards that loosely interpret their state-mandated comprehensive plans to justify development.
“There’s been a lot of cases out there where it seems like the courts are just eager to just rubber-stamp a city council decision to rezone, and this decision by the court clearly puts strength and meaning” back into the comprehensive plan, McGlauflin said.
‘MIDTOWN’ OPPONENTS BOLSTERED
The ruling has bolstered opponents of the “midtown” development proposed in Bayside. The proposal, which will go before the Planning Board next week, calls for four high-rise towers and two parking garages, which opponents say don’t comply with the city’s comprehensive plan.
Peter Monro, a co-founder of the Keep Portland Livable group, said in a prepared statement that Wheeler’s ruling sends “an important message” to city officials.
“It’s clear that the city continues to make arbitrary and inconsistent decisions in favor of development while ignoring not only the concerns of taxpayers and residents but also the planning process and its own regulations,” Monro said. “When is the city going to start listening to its residents instead of large, out-of-state developers whose interest is only in their bottom line, not in ensuring that Portland remains a special community where people can live, work and raise a family?”
According to city records, the Monsours received a building permit to renovate the first floor of the Williston-West parish house as office space and stabilize the bell tower. That work cost about $34,000.
On Monday, the company’s website listed 32 Thomas St. as the address of its U.S. headquarters, but most of the employees of the fledgling software company are working from home, said Mary Costigan, a former city attorney who represents the Monsours.
Costigan said the Monsours are letting the city take the lead on the case. In response to an interview request, the family released a statement through Costigan.
“The Monsour family is still very invested in Portland and confirms that any use of the (Williston-West) property is in accordance with the current zoning,” Costigan said.
Built in 1877, the church was designed in the High Victorian Gothic style by Francis Fassett. The 11,000-square-foot parish house, designed by Portland’s best-known architect, John Calvin Stevens, was added in 1904.
In addition to offices, the Monsours planned to add living space to the parish house and restore the sanctuary so it could be used as a community hall.
The plan ran into stiff opposition from West End residents, who have long fought the encroachment of businesses into their neighborhood.
The Western Promenade Neighborhood Association presented the City Council with a petition signed by 137 people opposing the project. More than 50 people spoke during a two-hour public hearing on June 18, 2012.
Paul Stevens, an architect who is a great-grandson of John Calvin Stevens, said the church sanctuary and parish house are in need of repair. Stevens supported the rezoning and said Monday that Wheeler’s ruling serves the law at the expense of the practical needs of the building.
An ordinance protecting historic buildings doesn’t necessarily mean owners will maintain those structures, which can be removed if they become dangerous, Stevens said. “It doesn’t bode well for the future of that building at all,” he said. “The city can’t force someone to maintain a property. I think it’s going to be very difficult for someone to find another use for that building – at least one that makes economic sense.”
McGlauflin, however, said residents are eager to work with the Monsours – or any other developer – on a restoration and redevelopment plan that complies with the city’s comprehensive plan.
“My clients would like to think positively about finding another way to repurpose that building,” he said.
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:r