September 4, 2013

Saco tables its plan to buy former church

The City Council halts the deal after hearing from 15 residents opposed to the idea Tuesday.

By Gillian Graham ggraham@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

SACO – The City Council temporarily halted a plan to buy and demolish a former Catholic church to make a parking lot after hearing strong opposition to the idea Tuesday night.

click image to enlarge

The Saco City Council temporarily halted a plan to buy and demolish the former Notre Dame de Lourdes church to make a parking lot after hearing strong opposition to the idea Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013.

Tim Greenway / 2009 Staff File Photo

For more than an hour, councilors listened to more than a dozen residents speak against a plan to buy the Notre Dame de Lourdes church and rectory on Cutts Avenue, which have been empty since the church closed three years ago.

Residents questioned why city officials want to spend as much as $419,000 to buy the two buildings. That sentiment was echoed by several councilors who supported a motion to table a vote on the plan.

City officials say that acquiring the property is a rare opportunity to put more parking spaces near the highest parking generators downtown.

The council voted unanimously to table its vote on the plan, citing a need for further study of parking needs and the possibility of negotiating a lower purchase price with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland.

During the public hearing, James Audiffred of Saco said the amount of money the city was willing to pay for the buildings was "grossly overstated," given the lack of interest in the property in the past three years.

He said he also doubts the city would be able to sell the attached rectory to offset the purchase price.

"I didn't think we were in the real estate business," he said. "I don't think you have a snowball's chance of selling the rectory."

Many of the 15 residents who spoke against the plan said taxes in the city are too high and the City Council is too eager to spend taxpayers' money for a parking lot that may not be needed. A recent survey showed that some downtown areas, such as Pepperell Square, are cramped for parking, while other areas regularly have spots available.

Other residents, like Alex Wall, said tearing down the 1929 church building would be a loss for the city. The building is not in the historic district, but it's near a former fire station that Saco residents fought to save from a similar plan last year.

"I think it would be a crying shame to tear that gorgeous building down," Wall said.

Also Tuesday, the council granted approval of a bottle club registration application that would allow customers to bring their own alcohol to a cigar lounge downtown.

Daniel Vela, owner of Saco River Cigars, is seeking state approval to operate a bottle club at his cigar lounge on Middle Street. Local approval is needed for the bottle club.

Saco River Cigars would be the only bottle club in the city and one of fewer than two dozen statewide. Under bottle club rules, customers must bring their own alcohol.

Before the council could approve the application, Vela needed a conditional use permit from the Planning Board. That permit was approved last week, with conditions that require Vela to close his business by 9 p.m., keep the windows closed at all times and not use the patio.

During a public hearing Tuesday, two neighbors raised concerns about the effect the bottle club would have on the neighborhood. "It's not something we want in the neighborhood," said Colleen Sargent.

But Vela and several regular customers defended the business, saying patrons don't cause problems and shop at other downtown businesses.

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

ggraham@pressherald.com 

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