On Sundays in August, the Calvary Chapel Belfast has been having temporary church services under a large tent on a parcel of land off Birch Lane of which Chris and Diane Colby claim ownership.

Neighbors voiced their frustration over the large crowds, the amplification of sermons and the added traffic in their adjacent cul-de-sac at the Aug. 18 selectmen's meeting.

Attorney Logan Perkins, speaking on behalf of the Birch Lane neighbors, said besides the added vehicular traffic, noise and population impacts associated with large groups of people convening at the tent, the town did not rightfully own the property it conveyed to the Colbys earlier in the year.

She accused the town of making a "problematic" land-swap deal with the Colbys where the town "relieved" itself of tax-foreclosed property adjacent to Birch Lane in exchange for a parcel of land owned by the Colbys next to Mt. Ephraim Road Cemetery. Most municipalities in Maine would put foreclosed properties up for bid to retain as much money for the town as possible, the lawyer said, adding that the procedure lacked transparency.

According to Perkins, five of the parcels named in the deed were actually privately owned and current with taxes. The Colbys have also started significant development and engaged in building a road without securing the proper permitting from the town code enforcement officer or from the Planning Board, she said.

"In the process of getting the permit, someone would have looked at the deed and said, 'You don't own that land, you can't build a road.'

"We can't get to building roads on lands we don't own, right?" she said and added, "Your own zoning ordinance does not permit institutional church services in residential-2 zone."

In a conversation with The Republican Journal Aug. 20, Town Manager James Gillway said the town was indeed interested in the Colbys' land in order to expand the cemetery, which he said is currently close to being full. Both properties, Gillway said, were "equally challenged," with the property adjacent to Birch Lane having a drainage ditch running through it, rendering it unsuitable for building.

Gillway said the town did have a right to sell the property after three years of unpaid taxes, but added that the town code enforcement officer will need to review any violations on the property.

Speaking specifically on the residentially zoned area and uses allowed, Gillway said the parcel in question is being used institutionally, which is not permitted under the town ordinance.

In a tense moment at the selectmen's meeting, Perkins addressed the town manager, saying, "…it's your signature on the faulty deed attempting to convey my clients' property that the town did not own."

Gillway replied, "That is a legal matter that our attorney has offered to graciously meet with you (about) … this is not a courtroom."

Judson Colby, son of Chris and Diane and a Calvary Chapel parishioner, said at the Aug. 18 meeting that his parents also attend the church and it was Pastor Greg Huston who approached them about having services on the parcel. Previously, he said, the church held services at the Hutchinson Center in Belfast, as well as drive-in services at the Waldo County Technical Center.

Besides the Sunday sermons, Judson said there is a Bible study group that meets on Thursday, and a teen camp that has used the tent for an activity. According to Judson, Birch Lane neighbors called the Department of Environmental Protection to investigate their claims and the DEP found no environmental rules or laws were broken.

Judson said he has encountered issues in the past with neighbors screaming at him for setting off fireworks on the property with his child, even though he was within his legal rights.

"We're not doing anything," he said. "We're not smoking meth. We're having a church service, people — this is your First Amendment right."

Michael Housman, who operates a chiropractic office on Route 1 directly north of the church tent, said he is frustrated because the process residents of the town use to change things was not followed. "This has progressed ahead without neighbors having a say on how it impacts them," he said.

The situation, he said, has gotten worse, and he pleaded with the board to find a solution, because he did not want to have to move. "I love this area and I respect it," Housman said.

Perkins said that while everyone is sympathetic to the idea that indoor church services have become difficult, problematic or prohibited by various pandemic-related orders around the state, they support and encourage those who wish to engage in religious practice "to find appropriate venues for their expression of their religion."

Pastor Greg Huston asked the abutting neighbors for patience, as the church services are only temporary, and added that one neighbor in the cul-de-sac constantly plays loud music. "I haven't heard that mentioned," he said. "When we have our services, the music is almost as equally loud as ours is. We have no problem with it.

"I am interested in why our amplification is more obnoxious than the one that is in the very neighborhood."