The Belfast Planning Board granted preliminary approval June 23 to a proposed 10,750-square-foot building that would house the Waldo County Sheriff’s Office and Emergency Management Agency, conditioned upon the results of an environmental study of the property.

The building, which is to be located behind the Maine Coastal Regional Reentry Center, formerly Waldo County Jail, has drawn strong criticism from neighbors who say the building will diminish property values in the neighborhood. County officials have presented the project as a remedy for an aging sheriff’s office that can be accomplished without asking for additional money from taxpayers.

On Wednesday, several neighbors voiced concerns about aspects of the project, ranging from the visibility of the building from adjacent yards to potential environmental concerns and issues with how the $1.4 million building is to be paid for.

“Some of what we’re saying here tonight may not be appropriate for the Planning Board,” said abutter Seth Benz, “but I don’t know where else to go with my concerns but a public forum.”

Andrew Hamilton, one of two lawyers present for the county, called out some of these concerns as not germane to a site plan review, though the board did not uphold his objections. After one of these, Planning Board Chairman Roger Pickering heard Hamilton out, then said, “At the same time, when we have a public hearing, we let people say what they want to say.”

Roughly 20 people attended the meeting, of which more than half were county officials and a group of supporting professionals that included two lawyers, an architect and a traffic expert.

In documentation submitted to the Planning Board, the county addressed a number of concerns brought up at the initial April 14 hearing, including the future use of the current sheriff’s office building — a nearly 200-year-old converted single-family home that is part of the larger historic neighborhood.

The county previously considered separating the house from the original 1851 jail — a brick building connected to the rear of the house by an el, and currently used by the county for storage — and selling it as a single-family residence.

But this use raised concerns from the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, and a clause relating to the use of federal money for the new building gave the organization, which usually has only advisory status, the power to put the brakes on the project. The Planning Board deferred, tabling consideration of the county’s application until that issue was resolved.

In the interim, the county settled on using the current sheriff’s building for storage and offices for two county employees. The MPHC responded that the group had no concerns with this use.

EMA Director Dale Rowley and Sheriff Scott Story each addressed the board to say why they needed a new building. Rowley said the former civil defense space in the basement of the jail did not provide adequate space for a modern EMA. The space has no kitchen or showers, which he said become important during emergencies when workers do 12-hour shifts and officials like himself may stay on-site for days. The last such emergency was the ice storm of 1998, he said.

The agency also has equipment and vehicles that have been stored at the Brooks and Troy fire stations, but under the new plan could be stored on-site.

Story said the current sheriff’s office amounts to very cramped quarters and has a number of hazardous conditions. The sheriff said the repurposed bedrooms, closets and dining rooms were inadequate for the department, that he did not currently have a space where the entire department could meet and often had to borrow space at the EMA offices or the district court, and that the building had limited handicap-accessibility, including the building’s only ground-floor bathroom, a wheelchair-inaccessible former water closet.

Story expressed frustration that neighbors were suggesting plans similar to those that were rejected by voters — locating the facility at a piece of county-owned land between Lincolnville Avenue and Lower Congress Street. “Here we are once again, fighting tooth and nail, it seems, for doing what we were asked to do,” he said.

Story said it was important for him to be near the jail, both for administrative reasons and to be able to offer personnel backup.

“This plan is a really nice compromise and a really good plan,” he said.

An issue that appeared to grab the attention of the Planning Board was raised by Paula Johnson, who runs Cornerspring Montessori School out of a house across the street from the sheriff’s office. Johnson complained of a strong odor that she believes emanates from the county property. She said the Department of Environmental Protection is conducting an inquiry into the source of the odor, and she urged the Planning Board not to allow digging on the property until the source is known.

Representatives of the county addressed the odor in a document given to the Planning Board, saying that although it is not part of the site plan review, the county “is committed to addressing any undue odors that may relate to use of the County property.”

The document goes on to say that the county would treat, “if necessary, the underdrain outlet and sump in and near the jail building, a possible source of intermittent odors.”

There appeared to be disagreement between county representatives and Johnson about the strength of the odor. The Planning Board made preliminary approval of the site plan conditional upon the results of any outstanding DEP investigations.

Johnson also said that the value of her property had dropped, while taxes had gone up. She blamed the transformation of the jail to a reentry center, which she said has increased the presence outside her school of the facility’s residents — who, because of the nature of the program, have more freedom than did inmates of the jail.

The Planning Board also raised the issue of parking. Though the county has projected that there will be no increase in staffing, the plans for the new building contain an additional 17 parking spaces. Rowley said the extra spaces were to meet Belfast code, but that he probably didn’t need that many. The Planning Board seemed to favor making an exception to allow fewer spaces, leaving the parking at the new building as planned, but taking away spaces near the current sheriff’s office to give the old house a more residential appearance.

A proposed buffer of trees between the new building and one abutting lot was changed from white pine to cedar based on a recommendation from the city’s tree warden, and a neighbor of the property, Didier Bonner-Ganter, who said the soil on site would not support white pine.

Representatives of the county said they would likely return to seek final approval on July 28. Rowley said the current plan is to break ground in the fall, work through the winter and finish in the spring of 2011.

After the meeting, Commissioner Amy Fowler said she was pleased with the outcome. “These guys did a lot of homework, so I’m really pleased,” she said, indicating her fellow county officials and the professionals representing the county at the meeting.

Asked what the neighbors planned to do next, Thierry Bonneville, who owns property abutting the county land, said he didn’t know.

“We got to say what we needed to say, and this was our only venue to express our dissatisfaction with the project,” he said.