Questions about the use of a former church for retail sales dominated Planning Board discussions Oct. 25 as members considered a request for contract rezoning.

Peace Ridge Sanctuary in Brooks, a nonprofit animal rescue organization, hopes to purchase the property at 17 Court St. currently owned by Geoff Gilcrest — a member of the Planning Board who was not present Oct. 25.

Planning Board Chairman Steve Ryan said the property is allowed to request contract rezoning, as one of more than a dozen underused properties in the city. City Planner Wayne Marshall noted it is in a residential zone but said the property was designated by city councilors as a large building inside the Route 1 bypass that could request other uses than those outlined for residential zoning.

The Planning Board does not approve contract rezoning requests but instead makes recommendations to the City Council. Councilors consider the recommendations before deciding for or against rezoning.

“In the past this was used as other uses than residential,” Marshall said, including a performance space for Masker's Theater, a photography studio, a church and industrial arts space for National Theater Workshop for the Handicapped. Other proposed uses range from offices to a restaurant to a performance space to retail, he said. No In-Town Design Review Committee approval is required for the project because there are no exterior changes proposed, Marshall noted.

Realtor Mike Cunning represented Peace Ridge. He said purchase of the property is contingent on the contract rezoning being approved.

“There's a long list (of prior uses) but what we have here is a building that's been underused for a long time,” Cunning said. “ … They're going to bring the building back to life.”

He described the retail operation as “upscale” and offering furnishings, art and other items of value donated to support the sanctuary. An existing residence in the building would remain, he said.

“We love the idea that a church, a sanctuary, will become an extension of Peace Ridge Sanctuary in Brooks,” Cunning said.

There are needed repairs, including a broken elevator, but no additional parking is being requested. Cunning said the prospective owners feel new parking spaces would be a detriment to the aesthetics of the property. However, Marshall suggested creation of at least one handicapped parking space, which could run parallel to the road.

The only proposed exterior change is the addition of a bottle collection container, anticipated to be a miniature replica of the former church, Cunning said. Donated bottles will benefit Ark Animal Shelter in Blue Hill.

Planning Board members questioned the proposed business hours as well, which were boosted from the original three days per week to five days at Marshall's suggestion.

“I suggested they not ask for only three days,” Marshall said. “ … they would have to come back to amend each time (more days/hours were being sought).”

Ryan said he fears a business open only three day a week might not be considered a vital addition to the area.

“I would like to see something robust,” he said.

Area residents were split on the proposal. Duncan Bond, who lives on neighboring Spring Street, said he is in favor of keeping existing parking spaces because there have not been problems in the past.

“I'd like to see less paving and more green grass,” he said.

Belmont resident Andrew Shindell, who owns 5 Court St., said he thinks the neighborhood already is being overused by commercial enterprises.

“I sleep in Belmont but have a huge investment in the neighborhood,” he said. “ .. I don't feel we need another (business) at 17 Court.”

Looking to the future, Shindell said the proposed Peace Ridge project was not objectionable but that he is more concerned about future uses of the property if the contract rezoning is approved.

“Once it's given the stamp of approval, what else will come down the line?” he asked. “… I'm really concerned that this is not beneficial for the city at large. I would love the building to be loved. It's a quirky space; it needs a quirky owner.”

Shindell also raised concerns about the former Crosby School property located nearby and said there are dumpsters and trailers on the property making the neighborhood less attractive.

Two letters were received regarding the proposal, both against the project. Kate Nadeau of Court Street wrote she does not think it is a good fit for the neighborhood and that allowing retail could set a precedent. Mike Fletcher, also of Court Street, shared that view on the potential negative impact of retail use.

Marshall said if the contract zone is approved, any new owner continuing a retail use would not be required to return to the Planning Board but any other proposed use would require board approval. He noted conditions can be recommended by the Planning Board as part of the rezoning to limit a range of options — including hours or restricting the property to 501(3)(c) organization use — but the final decision lies with the City Council.

Planning Board members Declan O'Connor and Margot Carpenter voiced support for the change.

“I think it's an important building,” O'Connor said. “I think this could breathe some life back into it.”

He indicated rapid turnover of the property with a new business every year, though, would not be beneficial. Carpenter said she does not oppose the plans.

“This seems to be a very light, best-case scenario,” she said, adding she is concerned about any future retail uses in the space.

Ryan stated he has mixed feelings based on the proposed use.

“This doesn't really drive me,” he said. “It's almost a continued under-use.”

Marshall shared some background on the property, which was foreclosed upon before being purchased by the Gilcrests and renovated.

“It may not be as robust as some people envisioned; it's not a restaurant,” Marshall said. “Is it the perfect use? I don't know.”

But, if the contract rezoning is approved, he said, it creates future opportunities for use of the property not currently allowed in the residential zone.

Planning Board members clashed again when speaking about possible recommendations to the City Council regarding the contract rezoning request. Carpenter said she would like Peace Ridge to present a stronger management plan for the retail operation as well as more details about the proposed bottle collection container.

“I maintain it's an abdication of our duties,” Ryan responded, adding later, “(The application) is devoid of details. We don't know almost anything about this. … The lack of detail is unsettling.”

Ultimately, the board did not take action on the proposal but instead requested Peace Ridge return Thursday, Nov. 16, with the requested additional information.

“I think this (approval without detail) is beyond the scope of what we can do as a board,” Carpenter said.

“I'd like some specificity,” Ryan added.

Marshall said he would request more information from the applicant about parking, bottle collection, financial ability, proposed changes to the structure, more specifics regarding retail items and the frequency of special events such as staff meetings.

Because the Nov. 16 meeting is a continuation of the Oct. 25 meeting, public comments are still being accepted.