BRUNSWICK — Two months after the Village Review Board denied a bid by All Saints Parish to demolish the old rectory next to St. John the Baptist Church, the board’s decision has been reversed.
After the parish appealed the review board’s decision on the grounds that maintaining the old rectory is an economic hardship, the Zoning Board of Appeals unanimously approved the demolition application on March 15.
Charlie Wiercinski, an engineer who represented the parish, told the ZBA that the old rectory costs the church $11,000 a year in maintenance and taxes. He said the building would cost more than $450,000 to move and at least $200,000 to renovate – costs that make it unappealing to potential buyers.
The parish has been trying, unsuccessfully, to find someone to buy or move the building since October.
“We’ve exhausted all compatible uses of the structure,” Wiercinski said. “We can’t give it away, quite frankly.”
Parish administrators said the building is also standing in the way of future plans for its campus, which include a new gymnasium and cafeteria to be built in what is now the parking lot between the church and the Red Brick House on Pleasant Street.
“The bigger campus plan is so much more than the fate of this white building, but bringing the plan to fruition rests on this first step,” Andree Tostevin, principal of St. John’s Catholic School, said.
But Chris Ludwick, a High Street resident and All Saints parishioner, was concerned that allowing the church to tear down the rectory would set a precedent.
“The rationale that’s been given to tear town this property can be extrapolated to tear down any historic property,” Ludwick said. “Is this the way around the (Village Review Board) for every future applicant?”
The zoning board, however, sided with the parish, and after a short discussion voted unanimously to allow the demolition. Anyone opposed to the decision has 45 days to appeal, so the parish plans to wait at least that long to start demolition, Don Leaver, the parish business coordinator, said Monday.
The review board denied the parish’s request for demolition over concerns that the rectory is historic and that the church had not pursued enough alternatives to tearing it down. The board vote was 3-3, but the request failed because the application did not receive majority support.
The denial appeared angered some parishioners and other town residents, including Art Boulay, who called for the board’s elimination in a Jan. 11 email to town officials.
Boulay argued that the board ignored the “more than sufficient data” showing how expensive it would be to move or renovate the building.
“The economic and practicality issues were never directly addressed by the board,” he said. “It was absolutely clear from the meeting that the ZBA or a court of law will reverse this decision based on these two factors alone.”
Pointing to two recent examples when the review board has reversed an initial denial – Bowdoin College’s application to tear down a Cleaveland Street home and the Brunswick Development Corp.’s bid to demolish four houses at the intersection of Pleasant and Stanwood streets – Boulay said “the VRB neither understands its responsibilities nor how to go about its work … if this is how it operates, it should be eliminated.”
Wiercinski, also in an email to town officials, said “it is clear to me that the only impact the (VRB) has had on any of the recent demolition projects is to add delay and expense and therefore their role should be re-evaluated.”
In response to Boulay, VRB Chairman Emily Swan said the board considers factors other than cost.
“You are absolutely right that economic viability and practicality are extremely important considerations when demolition applications come before the Board, but keeping buildings which contribute to the Village Review Zone is at least as important,” she wrote on Jan. 24.
She also disputed the criticism that the VRB takes a “helter-skelter” approach to demolitions, arguing that in both cases Boulay cited the board asked the applicant for more information.
“It is entirely reasonable that the Board would require substantive information before allowing the demolition of a piece of Brunswick’s historic fabric – an action that is conspicuous and irrevocable,” Swan said.
After hearing the details of the parish’s request, Earle Shettleworth, director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, said the VRB was just doing its job.
“If people are concerned that they’re first holding this up and questioning it and seeking other alternatives, that would seem to me to be what the ordinance tells them to do,” Shettleworth said.
Leaver, despite having been initially upset after January’s denial, agreed.
“The people on the Village Review Board were doing what they thought was right,” he said. “As long as we were able to get through the Zoning Board of Appeals then we’re satisfied with the process.”