Peirce School conversion

Delve deeper

By Church Street Neighbors | Jan 08, 2019

We represent approximately 25 properties along Church Street and the surrounding neighborhood — all in close proximity to the Peirce School. Some of us have lived in the area for decades, while others have purchased properties over the last 10 years.

In some cases, we worked closely with the city regarding zoning and permitted use for  months prior to purchase. We were all attracted to the stately neighborhood, with its elegant single-family homes and friendly neighbors. For most of us, these homes are our single most important investment.

The prospect of Belfast approving the conversion of Peirce School into a multi-unit, long-term rental building with six two-bedroom apartments and two one-bedroom apartments has us concerned, and we have asked for more time to gather information.

To be clear, we are not anti-renter (in fact, many of us are renters in other localities). Rather, our concerns also include the open-ended zoning changes that may open the door to future development without appropriate limitations, and without the need of neighborhood input.

The city notified us about this proposed project, helmed by Reservoir Ventures LLC, during the busy holiday season. We spent the past few weeks trying to follow facts, and despite apprehensions we tried to remain open-minded. We are as much focused on the "process" that brought us to this point as on the analysis of a specific project.

As a result of 2014 zoning discussions, the Peirce building is currently R1 zoned for two condos, although a buyer may request a change in use for a four-unit conversion. There are a variety of non-residential uses currently permitted as well, some of which also may cause concern, primarily because the city has limited mechanisms to control “quality of life” issues once a project has been approved.

To that end, we wish to correct the public record related to the most recent occupant of the building. Once the neighborhood was aware of the marijuana grow farm (an entirely different discussion should occur about why it came as a surprise to many of us), we all tried to be good neighbors.

It is not accurate to say there were no complaints. When we made calls regarding any issues, because of the current zoning we were told there was nothing the city could do. We don't want to be in a similar situation with this or any other project.

Our neighborhood was struck by the size change at the center of the Reservoir proposal as much as by the rental versus condo issue, because allowing eight units in the building would represent a 100-percent increase over the units allowed under current zoning.

A project of this size — keeping in mind the 24/7 nature of any apartment building which differs from its previous incarnations as a school or music conservatory — may have a negative impact on the neighborhood by increasing street traffic, quantity and quality of lighting, and noise levels.

An unsightly lighted parking lot with 18 to 24 parked cars might be a visual blight on this verdant and gracious neighborhood, not to mention the prospect of maintenance-related noise (dumpster retrieval, delivery trucks, day-to-day operations and repairs).

Additionally, as of this writing, there are no zoning caps or limits on the number of units in the building or expanded construction on the grounds — so the eight proposed today could expand to 10 or even 14 (as the original abutter's notice seemed to suggest).

Aside from floor plans and pre-renovation drawings, there are no interior unit mock-ups or exterior renderings depicting the finished project in the 60-page proposal submitted to the city. These tools would be valuable, especially as we evaluate potential repairs to the large, historic windows and the placement of HVAC and electrical equipment.

Overall, we have sought information regarding the scale of the project, in addition to the type of conversion allowed under new zoning rules, because we have a natural concern over the potential impact to home values. We believe this impact warrants careful, impartial study by outside experts.

We are also unclear about the definition of "affordable" versus "workforce" housing as it pertains to the Belfast market, and believe the city should clarify these terms in tandem with any proposed zoning change.

Additionally, will the city separate regulations that govern long-term rentals from short-term rentals like Airbnb, which are currently unregulated? These become significant requests for a project of this scale in our neighborhood.

A renter, by definition, has a different obligation to their respective living environment and relies on property managers to maintain living standards. We have requested information on this particular manager's track record and reputation — not out of malice, but because several of us are experienced property managers and have questions about the operational numbers.

This is an old, historic building with unique renovation challenges, to include ADA compliance and the incorporation of new ramps and appropriate parking. It will require qualified experience and a great deal of money.

On this front, because project scrutiny should never be portrayed as vindictiveness, we are requesting that the city delve deeper into the phased-renovation portion of this project and consider a performance bond requirement to certify that the venture is appropriately capitalized prior to final approval.

In other localities, this type of project — given Reservoir Ventures' lack of large-scale work to date — would warrant such a move. This is not a punitive measure; it is simply a community safeguard.

We are in favor of appropriate development, and recognize we may all have different notions of what belongs in this building. But our diversity is our strength, and it’s what makes Belfast special.

We don't want history to repeat itself. The zoning changes being considered are overly broad, and that leaves the neighborhood in a perpetually defensive position.

It is unfair to our neighborhood, and does a disservice to Reservoir Ventures LLC, to move forward without the benefit of more time, outside professional analysis, impact studies, specific project information and a broader discussion of rental housing needs in Belfast.

Claire Aaron

Amy V. Aaron

Caleb and Misty Aaron

Dimitri “DT” and Amy Ames

M.M. Burke and C.M. Burke

John Devine and Cam Devine

Patricia Hagerty

Arthur and Sara Hayes

Lucy Hingle 

Christopher and Diana Hyk

Dennis Nickerson 

Karen and Delores Niles

Cibby Niles

John Ostrand 

Manley Rogers 

Amanda W. Sutherland

Gerry Sommers

Rory Kieth-Thomas

Franklin Thomas

Gloria Dunn-Thomas

Michael and L. “Lizzie” Torre

Emily Tower

Ayas Walker and Gottlieb Walker

L. Scott and Catherine A. Walker

Lorenzo Walker

B.G. Walker III

Rose Woodford

Gordon and Jenny Young

K.S. Zorach

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