January 25

Portland to appeal court decision on West End church

A Superior Court justice ruled the city improperly changed zoning to allow a technology business in the building.

By Matt Byrne mbyrne@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

This story was updated at 1:55 p.m. Jan. 25 to correct Anne Pringle's title.

click image to enlarge

The former Williston-West Church in Portland

Staff file photo

 

The city of Portland will appeal a judge’s decision that it improperly granted a 2012 change of zoning to allow the construction of office space inside a historic West End church.

The City Council decided in a closed-door session Wednesday to appeal the decision of Superior Court Justice Joyce Wheeler, who earlier this month ruled that allowing the offices was contrary to the city’s comprehensive plan, which guides development throughout the municipality.

“As the voluminous record establishes, the Conditional Zoning Agreement for the so-called Williston-West property is consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan and existing and permitted uses,” the city’s attorney, Danielle West-Chuhta, wrote in a court notice filed Wednesday.

The appeal process will take about three weeks to officially begin, starting a months-long process in which both the city and West End neighborhood attorneys file arguments and counterarguments.

Anne Pringle, president of the Western Prom Neighborhood Association, did not immediately respond to a call for comment about the appeal, which if successful, would reverse the victory for the dozens of neighbors who were plaintiffs in the case.

Bruce McGlauflin, attorney for the neighbors, said he expects the appeal to be a rehash of arguments in the prior case, with a similar result.

“We think (Justice Wheeler’s) decision will be well respected by the law court, because of the extent to which she reasons through the issues,” McGlauflin said.

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.

Monsour has already done some work on the church, and Majella Global Technologies’ website lists the property as its U.S. headquarters. 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.

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.

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.

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

mbyrne@pressherald.com

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