The City Council on Jan. 15 added multifamily rentals to a long list of allowed uses on two in-town properties, including the former Peirce Elementary School, which is being eyed for rentals, and a landmark Greek revival home that isn't.

Public debate has centered on the Peirce School at 24 Church St., which has been vacant after a recent stint as a marijuana grow house, and before that, a music school. Reservoir Ventures LLC unveiled plans in 2018 to convert the two-story building to eight market-rate apartments.

The proposal required an amendment to the contract zoning terms that govern the building, which the council granted over pleas from neighboring residents to allow more discussion.

Neighbors of the former school have challenged the plan from a number of angles, claiming that giving the building over to renters would hurt property values, create new nuisances and threaten the historic character of the neighborhood. Many criticized the timing of the change, which unfolded over the holidays.

City Planner Wayne Marshall on Jan. 15 defended the change as a minor addition to a long list of possible re-uses already allowed for the former schoolhouse, including a hotel, motel, fitness center, social club, assisted living home, boarding house, museum, performing arts center and multifamily housing, provided it was under condominium ownership.

"This proposal does one thing," Marshall said. "It takes the word under 'multifamily' and instead of saying condominium form of ownership, it would allow any type of multifamily, meaning it could be rentals."

However minor in theory, the amendment raised red flags for some neighbors.

"According to Wayne Marshall, we could have a leper colony in there and it would be legal," Christopher Hyk, a neighbor of the Peirce School, told the council on Tuesday.

Hyk didn't rate renters against lepers, but he wagered property owners would be better for the neighborhood.

"I'm not at all sure that property owners do more for the local community," he said, "but … we have a stake in the community that's substantial."

Liz Chase, who described herself as a long-time renter in Belfast, offered herself as an example of what a renter can look like. Chase said she didn't feel she had created the kinds of problems described by opponents of the Peirce School conversion.

"I like the idea of life being brought back into that building," she said.

Benjamin Walker, owner of the James P. White house at 9 Church St., attended the council meeting with his wife, Yasmeen Walker, and their attorney, Ed Bearor, and all three spoke against the zoning amendment.

Walker tried to defuse tensions, saying that he and other neighbors are not anti-renter. Rather, he said, they are against the open-endedness of contract rezoning and the late notice change to the terms.

The James P. White house at 19 Church St. was previously run as the White House Bed & Breakfast. Like the Peirce School across the street, the White house was foreclosed upon and went to public auction. Walker bought it in 2015 and returned it to a private residence, making a number of faithful restorations to the stately Greek Revival home.

Walker expressed concern that his preservation work could be undone in the future if the building, under a future owner, were converted to rentals.

Tyler Eads, a partner in Reservoir Ventures with Jessie and Matt Francis, spoke in favor of the change, recounting how his family rented a home on Church Street for 10 years when he was growing up.

"It is our sincerest hope the council is able to weed through the fact-less, the derogatory, and in some cases completely falsified comments in order to focus on what's really important: a solution for our housing crisis," he said.

Councilors expressed appreciation to opponents for coming in a spirit of collaboration. They voted unanimously to approve the amendment to the contract zoning ordinance for the two properties, voicing faith that the actual plan approval process would address any reasonable concerns.

Walker stayed through the five-hour meeting to speak in a second public comment period, during which he asked for a better forum for residents to talk to councilors, who were previously warned against private conversations with constituents about the quasi-judicial matter of the contract zoning amendment — a rare situation for the normally legislative body.

City Manager Joe Slocum said he would look into it.

After the meeting, Walker said he's "optimistic" about the process, but he expressed frustration at the formal process, which forced members of the public to fit their comments to three-minute statements to the council.

"To me, that's not a dialogue," he said, "and it leads to misunderstanding."

The Peirce School proposal goes to the Planning Board next for a preliminary review. The review had not been scheduled as of this publication; staff at the city Planning Office anticipated it could begin Feb. 13.

Former Group Home rezoned

The council on Jan. 15 added the former Group Home Foundation building at 80 High St. to the list of properties under contract rezoning.

Slocum said Volunteers of America is working with federal and state agencies to reopen the building, which was at the center of a crisis in services for people with intellectual disabilities in 2016.

Bahre or almost nothing

City Planner Wayne Marshall told the City Council on Jan. 15 that the 84-acre lot being eyed by Tractor Supply Co. for a new store and multi-use development is one of the few desirable properties on the market in Belfast for a certain type of business.

Outside of the so-called Bahre property, which lies across Route 3 from Bank of America, there are just 8 acres available for development in the Route 3 commercial district, Marshall said, adding that businesses haven't wanted to look in other locations.

"There's no one who's come in and spoken to us who wants to be on the East Side," he said.