The Belfast Planning Board tabled review of a proposed 10,750-square-foot building that would house the Waldo County Sheriff’s Office and Emergency Management Agency April 14, after learning that the fate of the current sheriff’s building and historic jail has yet to be determined.

The Council chambers at Belfast City Hall were packed April 14 as residents opposed to the project used the public forum to air concerns ranging from historic preservation to animal habitat disruption, criticism of county officials and the potential for diminished property values.

The proposed sheriff’s and EMA building would be built on a vacant lot behind the Maine Coastal Regional Reentry Center — formerly the Waldo County Jail. Site plans show an L-shaped structure, of which roughly 3,200 square feet is designated for the EMA and 7,500 square feet for the Sheriff’s Office. The site would also include a carport and a 23-space parking lot.

The county lot is separated from neighboring properties by a narrow buffer of trees or a wooden fence, but neighbors have complained that the new building would be easily visible, where now there is only open lawn.

Karen Rak, who lives next to the sheriff’s office, said she would have a clear view of both the end of the building and the “loathsome carport.” Rak called for mature tree plantings to screen the building from view. She also objected to erecting a wooden fence between the properties, saying that would make her feel as though she were the one in prison.

Didier Bonner-Ganter, a Congress Street resident and the city’s tree warden, recommended extending proposed plantings to portions of the lot not screened in the current plan and incorporating arborvitae, a variety of cypress.

Paula Johnson, who lives downhill from the county property, said she had noticed a propane additive-like smell coming from storm drains and noticed the same smell while touring the re-entry center. Johnson said the Department of Environmental Protection was investigating the smell, but she voiced concern that, if the smell was coming from the county lot, digging might exacerbate the problem.

Johnson also told the Planning Board she believed that the new building would affect already-diminished property values in the area.

Last year the county received a $360,000 Federal Emergency Management Agency grant toward the construction of a new EMA building. At the time, the county commissioners were seeking to remedy the poor working conditions at the sheriff’s office, located in a nearly 200-year-old former jailer’s house on Congress Street. In January, the commissioners earmarked $1 million for a new Sheriff’s Office building, which they determined should be combined with the planned EMA building.

Neighbors of the county-owned lot — which has frontage on Congress and Miller streets, and contains, in addition to the Sheriff’s Office and the re-entry center, a building housing the Regional Communications Center — have supported giving the Sheriff’s Office a new facility, but have objected to the location of the new building and to its scale in relation to other buildings in the designated historic district.

Two of the buildings that contribute to the designation of the neighborhood as “historic”, according to the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, are the original 1851 brick jail building, now used for evidence storage, and the residential structure that is the current home of the Sheriff’s Office.

Earlier this week EMA Director Dale Rowley received an e-mail from Robin Stancampiano of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission expressing concern that the county had considered razing the historic jail building. The commissioners had hoped to put the residential structure on the market as a single-family home, but thought having the house connected to the re-entry center would discourage prospective buyers.

Demolishing the historic jail building to create a space between the residential structure and the re-entry center is one of several options county officials have considered.

The Historic Preservation Commission has no legal authority to prevent changes to private residences within its designated historic districts, but because the new county building would be funded in part by a FEMA grant, Stancampiano said, FEMA would have to consult MHPC “to seek ways to avoid, minimize or mitigate adverse effects on these historic properties.”

On Wednesday night, the conditions of the FEMA grant appeared to mean that the buildings could not be demolished.

Several residents voiced concerns about the project’s effect on the environment in the area. Mollie Noyes said a number of “species of special concern,” including 17 birds and the Rambur’s Forktail dragonfly, had been seen in nearby fields. Noyes noted that the area had an abundance of “green space” that contributed to the character of the neighborhood.

Neighborhood resident Seth Benz asked what would happen if the re-entry center or communications center had to expand due to an increase in calls for service, regional consolidation, or in the case of the pilot re-entry program, success.

Several neighbors offered alternatives to building a new building, including demolishing the current sheriff’s building and rebuilding it, or renovating the existing structure. The historic designation seemed to eliminate the first option.

City Planner Wayne Marshall told county representatives Wednesday that an alternative plan to demolish the breezeway that connects the residential building to the historic jail would not leave enough space to meet the city’s setback requirements. Any such plan would require either a variance from the city’s zoning board of appeals or a contract re-zoning agreement with the City Council.

Board member Elizabeth Minor asked if selling the residential building would eliminate the Congress Street access to the new building, to which Code Enforcement Officer David Studer said the property could be sold with an easement.

Rowley later suggested that the county might renovate the residence for use as county offices in the future.

“I would find it so much more favorable if you did break that lot off and sell it as ‘single-family house with jail,'” said Minor.

Opponents of the new building plan have said that the $1 million earmarked for the sheriff’s wing of the new building would be more than enough to renovate the department’s current location.

Commenting after the meeting, abutting property owner Thierry Bonneville said he and others had always been told the building could not be renovated due to electrical hazards and standing water in the basement.

Asked to comment on the apparent conflict, Commissioner William Shorey said that the main issue was space. The roughly 15 employees of the Sheriff’s Office are too many to work in the current location, he said. If the proposed new building were built and the existing building were later renovated, Shorey said the renovated space would include fewer offices and, as a result, fewer employees.

The Planning Board was split on whether the uncertain fate of the jailer’s house and historic jail needed to be resolved before the plan for the new building could be approved.

“It’s a moving target that we’re trying to pin down and I feel uncomfortable with that,” said board member Diane Allmayer-Beck.

Board Chairman Roger Pickering argued that the new building and the old buildings could be addressed separately.

In a split decision, the Planning Board voted to table the county’s application pending a generic proposal for the two historic buildings. Allmayer-Beck, Minor and alternate William Affleck (who was filling in for absent board member Biff Atlass), voted to table the application. Pickering and Paul Hamilton were opposed.

“‘Moving target’ was, I think, a good assessment of the situation,” said Bonneville, after the meeting.

County Commissioner Amy Fowler said she was surprised at how little of the public comment at Wednesday night’s meeting was related to the aspects of the project that are within the Board’s jurisdiction.

“I didn’t hear anything bad said about the proposed facility, per se,” she said. “It was just everything from the dragonflies to the 40-foot arborvitae bushes.”