Holmes seeks zoning change for church

6 years ago

HOULTON, Maine — After being rejected by the Town of Houlton Planning Board in his request to lease property to the local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints due to zoning restrictions, Larry Holmes of Linneus will speak in favor of the church during the Feb. 26 Houlton Town Council meeting.

Holmes owns the 6,000-square-foot building that previously housed Portland Glass and Aroostook County Action Program’s daycare on 38-40 North St. in Houlton. The building has been on the market for three years, but Holmes did not see interest in the property until 2017, when members of the Latter-Day Saints contacted him and said they had outgrown their current location on 10 Pleasant Street in Houlton.

Church members expressed interest in leasing the building for five years with the option to purchase the space after that time.

The problem, Holmes explained on Feb. 19, is that the building sits in a residential business zone, which means that both residential properties and businesses can be located there. The zone allows 68 uses for property, including business office duplexes, pharmacies and assisted living facilities, as long as the owner obtains a permit. Churches are not among the allowed uses.

Holmes said he attended two planning board meetings, one on Jan.  8 and the second on Feb. 6, which included a public hearing, to request that board members reconsider the zoning restrictions and allow the church to occupy his building. But they have refused twice, citing Title 28-A, Section 701 of Houlton’s zoning laws that says that no business that serves alcohol can be located within 300 feet of a church or school unless that business existed before the law was enforced.

“That building has been empty for three years and every year it’s costing me $16,000 for heating and plowing and to check the furnace and sprinkler system. I pay $9,300 in taxes every year,” Holmes said. “I’d rather see people get something out of the space. All I’m asking is for the council to add one more permitted use to the zone.”

Houlton Planning Board Chairman Kip Swallow declined to comment on Holmes’ request and directed questions to Town Manager Bill MacDonald.

MacDonald said Tuesday he could not speculate on the possible decision from the councilors until they hear Holmes’ request.

“The council and I haven’t been part of the decisions that the planning board has made so far, but every time he’s come I’ve made sure he has had full access to the planning board and the meetings,” MacDonald said. “I can’t say for sure what we’ll decide until we hear all of Larry’s request.”

While researching the town’s zoning codes and consulting with lawyers, Holmes discovered there are no zone restrictions for cultivating and selling medical marijuana in any section of Houlton.

“I’m dumbfounded that I wouldn’t need a permit for a medical marijuana facility, but the town won’t allow a church in that same zone,” Holmes said. “My question for them is, ‘What’s so bad about having a church there? What’s the downside for the town?’”

During Holmes’ most recent appearance at the planning board’s public hearing, he said only one taxpayer in the RB zone, Jim Thompson, and one business owner, Bob Anderson, spoke in favor of the church while many other residents who do not live or own businesses in the zone also expressed support.

Holmes is encouraging Houlton residents to write letters to the town councilors and attend the Feb. 26 council meeting, to be held at 6 p.m. at the Houlton Town Office, to speak in favor of the church. He hopes councilors will use their authority to override the planning board’s previous decisions.

“During the last hearing I asked for common sense from the board and this is what I’m asking again of the council,” Holmes said.