Wentworth Center expansion in works; neighbors irked

By Ethan Andrews | Mar 11, 2018
Source: Belfast planning office, annotated by The Republican Journal A detail of plans to construct two new buildings, shown in orange, behind the Wentworth Center, shown in blue, on Waldo Avenue. Several residents of nearby Vine Street have voiced concerns, most adamantly among them Peter Wilkinson and Maryjean Crowe, whose property is shown in green.

Belfast — Plans to expand the Wentworth building on Waldo Avenue drew strong criticism in their first public review from neighbors who don't want the commercial property spilling over to an adjacent residential street.

L.H. Wentworth Inc., owner of the 15,438-square-foot building, which has the name "Wentworth" emblazoned across the front and is home to health care and social service offices, has proposed two new buildings for construction to the rear of the property.

The project would be done in two phases. The first would see a new one-story, 1,920-square-foot building constructed on what is currently undeveloped lawn behind the Wentworth building.

Phase two would add a second building standing two stories tall with a footprint of 6,786 square feet and total area of 13,572 square feet. The building would front on Vine Street, a residential cut-through between High Street and Waldo Avenue.

Speaking to the Planning Board Feb. 28, property owner Lloyd Wentworth said he doesn't have tenants for the larger building but has had two or three inquiries, of which one is a serious possibility.

"The people we're talking to now, it would be mostly workers," he said. "Not high traffic."

The smaller building is slated to be occupied by New World Organics, a medical marijuana caregiver, Jon Whitten Jr. the project's representative from Plymouth Engineering told the Planning Board. The business has been operating out of the current Wentworth building for two years.

Justin Olsen, co-owner of New World Organics with his girlfriend Nancy Shaw, told The Republican Journal the added space would allow him to see more patients than the current 1,200-square-foot office allows while still protecting patients' privacy. He said his discussions with Wentworth about the new building started about a year ago.

Several neighbors on Vine Street who spoke to the Planning Board Feb. 28 claimed they only learned about the plans two weeks before the meeting, which was the board's public discussion of the project.

Peter Wilkinson, a retired photographer, and his partner Maryjean Crowe, a retired art teacher, were among neighbors who said the expansion would disrupt the residential character of Vine Street. The couple called a meeting attended by 10 neighbors, and Wilkinson said the group was "unanimously opposed" to the project.

"We recognize it is in a so-called commercial zone, but we believe the project is way out of scale, way out of step with our neighborhood," he said. "Without exception, every other property on this street is a residential property, occupied mostly by owners, who take pride in their property and don't want to see this happen."

Today Vine Street is split between two zoning districts. The Waldo Avenue end of the street lies within the Route 137 commercial district, where a wide range of commercial uses is allowed. The High Street end is part of the Residential II district, which allows some types of smaller businesses, including home occupations, schools, health care facilities and professional offices.

In the future, the character of the street could go any number of ways.

The city's most recent comprehensive plan, approved in 2009, identifies Vine Street as a "growth area," in part because of the high volume of traffic. The street funnels traffic from downtown Belfast and Route 1 south toward Routes 137 and 7, which connect to much of Western Waldo County. Under the future land use plan, Vine Street would be joined with Waldo Avenue in a new small-scale mixed use zone that would allow retail stores up to 20,000 square feet, service stations and other types of businesses not permitted there today.

Residents described a different future. Wilkinson and Crowe said the street has always been somewhat marginal but has come up in the eight years they have lived there. In addition to their own renovations, landscaping and gardens, many of their neighbors have improved their properties, they said.

Jan Dodge, another Vine Street resident, noted that Belfast is short on residential properties. If the board were to approve the office building, Dodge said she hopes the surrounding 100-year-old homes would be taken into consideration, and that the appearance of the new building would be approached with a "similar thoughtfulness" to the new courthouse under construction downtown.

Tony Roe, who lives on the corner of Waldo Avenue and Vine Street, expressed a similar concern that the proposed office building wouldn't fit in.

"It just seems like they're pushing the limit on size to the very edge of what can possibly be done, and it's not going to fit into the neighborhood," he said. "It's just too big."

Wilkinson and Crowe additionally suggested that relocating the marijuana caregiver farther from Waldo Avenue would invite a criminal element to the area behind their home. The couple said the shop already attracts people looking in the windows at all hours, while many patients hang around the back lot smoking their pot, sometimes with friends.

On several occasions, items have gone missing from their backyard. They didn't report the thefts, they said, because they didn't want to be in conflict with their neighbors. They said they support the premise of the medical marijuana business and have no personal beef with the owners or Wentworth.

Crowe suggested that a better site for the medical marijuana caregiver would resemble a Rite Aid — facing a busy road with good lighting — rather than being hidden behind a large office building.

"It's too close to us," she said. "It's too hidden. It's too close to the schools and we don't want it in our neighborhood."

Planning Board member Margot Carpenter asked Wentworth if it wouldn't make more sense to locate the smaller building on the site of the current parking lot on Waldo Avenue and move the parking to the rear of the building.

"It's a common urban pattern to have the businesses on the street," Carpenter said. "It's just great to be able to walk to them, and I think visibility of the customers helps everybody."

Wentworth said he hadn't considered it, but he guessed it would be more expensive. At the city planner's suggestion, he agreed to look into it.

It's been almost a decade since voters legalized medical marijuana and established rules for caregivers and dispensaries, but the industry has remained something of an enigma. Olsen and Shaw are the only caregivers in Waldo County operating out of a commercial office space, Olsen said, which they share with Rip Tide Smoke Shop. The couple are each licensed to grow for five patients but are able to see more by rotating the patient list, which he described as a widely used practice. Olsen declined to say how many total patients the business serves.

Olsen told The Republican Journal March 5 that he's tried to be a good neighbor.

"We've worked from the very beginning to put on a good face for the community and maybe show a different side than people expected," he said.

For now, Olsen said the plan is to continue a medical marijuana caregiving service in the new building, but that could change if Maine lawmakers can break the logjam on recreational marijuana, which was legalized by voters in 2015.

The law has been stalled for more than two years as state officials debate what rules should apply to new businesses selling the drug. Belfast and many other municipalities have enacted moratoriums on recreational marijuana-based businesses and social clubs in an attempt to avoid conflicts with as-yet-unwritten state rules.

Olsen said recreational marijuana sales might be more lucrative, but he's more interested in helping people. If he sold marijuana for recreational use, Olsen said he would no longer would be allowed to consult with customers about the health benefits of cannabis.

"I would prefer medical marijuana, but I don't think I'll have a choice," he said. "I think they're going to phase it out eventually."

The Planning Board in considering the two buildings saw no conflicts with the proposed uses under current zoning.

City Planner Wayne Marshall said the plans satisfied setback and frontage requirements. And based on other businesses, he said it was "inconceivable" that the frontage on Vine Street wouldn't be able to handle the amount of traffic the new building would generate. He noted that the board could ask for a traffic study later in the process to verify that.

On Marshall's recommendation, the Planning Board tentatively scheduled another preliminary plan review for March 28 with any new information that Wentworth and Plymouth Engineering could submit. Marshall said the city would send out another notice, though it is not required to do so at this stage in the process.

"Even though the ordinance doesn't require it, because clearly there's public interest in this application; that's not always the case. But we'll make sure that people are aware of when a meeting will be coming forward," he said.

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