Sacred Heart Church Development Gets City OK. (Eventually)
While the Catholic church’s expansion plan on King Street gets the nod, confusion over whether a 3-2 Planning Board vote constituted passage or rejection leaves some participants with a sour aftertaste.
NORTHAMPTON – The Planning Board has approved a site plan by the city’s Roman Catholic parish to build a new 14,350 square-foot parish hall and offices next to the Sacred Heart church on King Street, a key step in the plans to consolidate five former city parishes into one with enough parking and support services for parishioners.
The board’s vote was 3-2 in favor of the site plan, but only after several conditions were attached as additional requirements.
Rev. John Connors, priest for the city-wide, consolidated St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, said he was glad the site plan was approved, but said he will meet next week with church officials to discuss details of the approval before making a formal announcement.
“We’re hopeful we’ll be able to move forward with this,” Connors told Northampton Media on Saturday.
The revised plans were drafted after project neighbors – including residents of Edwards Square, whose properties abut the church parcel to the north – objected to the proposed parish hall being located within 15 feet of the property line, among other things. (See our story on the controversy by clicking here.)
The new plans reposition the parish house so that the two-story building will now be about 60 feet from the residential property line, we are told. (To see the revised site plan submission, click here.)
One controversial condition to the approved site plan would link two things: the church’s request for a second curb cut on King Street, and the construction of a graded entrance from the church parcel to the adjacent Norwottuck Rail Trail bikepath. That condition, Northampton Media has learned, is opposed by the parish and could be the subject of an appeal.
When is a Majority Not a Majority?
Such details, however, pale in comparison with the controversy over whether the site plan was actually approved.
To those who attended Thursday’s meeting, it seemed clear that four votes were needed to approve the plan, and that the 3-2 vote in favor had fallen one vote short.
After all, that’s what everyone was told before and after the meeting by Board Chairman Stephen Gilson and staffer Carolyn Misch, the city’s land-use planner, multiple sources tell us.
Gilson and Misch informed the packed audience in the City Council chambers that four votes would be needed for approval.
“I thought that four votes were needed,” Planning Board member Francis “Frandy” Johnson told Northampton Media on Saturday. He said he also got a call Friday correcting the record.
Johnson was one of the three “yes” votes. Voting with him were Chairman Gilson and associate member Debin Bruce; member Katharine Baker and associate member Andrew Weir voted against the site plan, we are told.
According to Planning and Development Director Wayne Feiden, Gilson and Misch mistakenly thought the board quorum was six for purposes of the final vote, since six board members attended the meeting and asked questions. They also thought a city ordinance required a majority of those present, or four votes, to OK the site plan.
But since only five board members that night were eligible to vote on the site plan, Feiden told us, only three votes constituted the majority needed for project approval. He said Misch discovered the discrepancy on Friday morning when re-checking city ordinances, and informed him.
Feiden said he told Mayor Mary Clare Higgins about the mistake in late afternoon, after which key participants were told of the revised outcome. He said she was interested after getting phone calls from project supporters.
According to one source close to the project, some key parties learned of the site plan’s passage in an email from the Higgins’ office after the mayor’s meeting with Feiden.
The email read as follows:
“Mayor Higgins just met with planning director Wayne Feiden.
Good news: there was some sort of miscommunication. The Parish Hall plans PASSED 3 to 2.
Once a planning board member abstains from a vote, then the total number of votes is reduced by 1.
So out of 5 possible votes, The Parish Hall received 3, and thus was approved.”
But according to Gilson (reached shortly before this story was published), member Mark Sullivan had missed an earlier meeting on the project, which is what disqualified him from voting on the site plan. He said no one abstained from voting on the site plan.
And Gilson said the mistake about a quorum was his alone. He said he knew Sullivan couldn’t vote, and said so at the start of the meeting. But when it came to figuring the quorum, he recalled, he counted six board members present and stated that passage would require a majority of four.
“It was just a mistake, with Mark sitting at the table – but he couldn’t vote,” said Gilson. “Honestly, we just made a mistake (and) I apologize for the confusion.”
The Vote Switcheroo Came as a Surprise to Participants
Planning Board Member Johnson said he was surprised by news that the site plan had passed after all.
“It was unfortunate,” he told Northampton Media on Saturday.
Johnson agreed that process could appear messy or worse from the outside, let alone from those who were at the meeting, including many parishioners who spoke in favor of the project. “I certainly wish we could revisit it,” he said.
Feiden told us revisiting the vote would be impossible, given strict state and local regulations governing hearings. Others have suggested the entire hearing process would need to be restarted if an irregularity was determined to have occurred, and that there could be no “re-do” of Thursday’s meeting and vote.
Lawyer Edward Etheredge, who represented the parish before the Planning Board, said Saturday he was disappointed with the board’s actions on three fronts.
First, he said, was the Planning Board’s refusal to agree with him that churches are exempt from planning requirements under Constitutional principals that protect the free practice of religion without government interference. (Feiden told us case law allows municipalities to impose reasonable regulations.)
Also, said Etheredge, requiring the parish to construct a link to the bikepath is unreasonable and not covered in any ordinance he could find. (Feiden said the church failed as required to provide safe pedestrian and bicycle passage on the site, so the Planning Board imposed a solution themselves.)
Finally, Etheredge told Northampton Media he learned late Friday afternoon for the first time that the site plan had indeed been approved, in direct contradiction to what city officials had told him the night before.
In fact, Etheredge appeared unready to assume almost anything about the project after receiving call from City Hall informing him that the “no” vote had been transformed in a “yes” vote.
“I guess it’s approved,” Etheredge told us. “That’s what they say.”
Etheredge said he would have more to say after meeting next week with his clients, including Rev. Connors.
Once the official vote and the list of conditions is printed and circulated, the applicant will have a period of time in which to appeal. Although that time frame was not clear at press time, Gilson said he thought the appeal period is 90 days.
The Project Details
The St. Elizabeth Ann Seton parish was created in January 2010 when, under orders from Rev. Timothy A. McConnell, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, five separate city parishes were combined into one citywide entity. Three churches were closed (although one has reopened), and Sacred Heart became the parish’s principal house of worship.
St. Mary’s of the Annunciation on Elm Street, one of the city’s most magnificent buildings, remains closed, although some congregants have asked the Vatican to overrule the bishop and reopen it. And city tax assessors are looking to send out tax bills this summer for churches that remain closed and unused.
Church officials say the new parish serves about 2,100 families, or about 4,000 individuals.
But a lack of parking at Sacred Heart and the absence of a parish hall, church officials say, forced them to consider major site improvements.
According to plans registered with the city and information from participants, Phase One of the Sacred Heart site plan would be a busy time on the 2.9-acre site.
The plans call for tearing down an historic rectory building on the property, as well as the adjacent Christian Life Center, which is also deemed historically significant but is badly deteriorated. Numerous tall pine trees would also be removed (many have already been taken down, to the chagrin of Edwards Square neighbors who said the trees provided a natural buffer to the churchyard), and parking would be increased from 48 to about 144.
The lot has 395 feet of frontage on King Street; on-site parking would be increased from 40 to about 144 spaces.
In July, the city’s Historical Commission placed a one-year demolition delay on removal of the rectory, which was designed by Northampton architect Isaac Damon and built around 1830.
Rev. Connors said the estimated cost of Phase One at between $2 million to $3 million.
Sources say the parish would look to raise the money through fundraising, and through the selling off of the St. John Cantius church on Hawley Street. Although St. John’s church is closed, its free-standing parish hall is now being used by congregants, and is the site of a twice-weekly soup kitchen for the poor and homeless.
An Improved Site Plan and Private Meetings with Residents
At Thursday’s Planning Board hearing, several parishioners spoke in favor of the project, saying it was needed to improve the parish’s new central church property.
And although several Edwards Square residents reportedly attended Thursday’s meeting, none spoke against the new plans.
Last November, neighbors had plenty to say in a private evening meeting with Connors and other church officials, Feiden and planning staff at City Hall. After that session, the parish pulled its plans and vowed to make changes that were less objectionable to the neighbors.
In recent weeks, Connors and other parish officials met with project neighbors to review the new plans, a strategy that apparently worked.
Also, changes made to the plans by The Berkshire Design Group Inc., located across King Street from the church, went a long way toward gaining support, several sources told us.
“Everyone was much happier with the new plans,” Gilson said Saturday. For instance, he said, the parish hall was moved closer to King Street than originally drawn, and repositioned so that the rear of the building moved from about 15 feet away from the property line to about 60 feet.
And the two parking areas (located on either side of the church) were pushed back from King Street. As now drawn, the new parish house and parking lots would have an consistent setback from King Street. Site lighting issues and handicap-accessible parking spaces were also addressed, Gilson said.
Johnson said he supported the project because it appeared to meet all the requirements. “It was clear to me it was a reasonable project and there was no legal reason to vote against it,” said Johnson.
But he said the church’s opposition to being forced to construct bikepath access is ill-advised, and that he favors the church linking to the rail trail to assist pedestrians and even parishioners who want to bike to services.
“The church has to function as part of the community,” he said.
Connors had a different take on matters.
First, he said it’s important for the new parish to consolidate its resources and provide all its services from the same location.
Now, Connors said, parishioners who want to attend events in the parish hall after a service have to get in their cars and drive the eight blocks or so to St. John Cantius. Phase Two includes a building addition that would include the parish offices, which are now located in a basement office at the St. Mary’s church rectory on Elm Street.
Already, other critical repairs are underway for the Sacred Heart church itself.
A new high-efficiency boiler was installed, and an air-conditioning system will be in place during May, Connors said; roof repairs are ongoing, and an existing bathroom is being made handicap-accessible.
According to Connors, the expansion plans will present the property in a much better light than currently, and will vastly improve services to the congregation, which is said is 90-percent composed of Northampton residents.
“We are the community, as well,” he said.
© 2011 Northampton Media
David Reid can be reached at email@example.com