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Planning Board defers to Building Inspector on church building use

Date: 2/8/2010

Feb. 8, 2010

By Debbie Gardner

Assistant Managing Editor

EAST LONGMEADOW -- The Planning Board invited both Town Counsel James Donahue and Building Inspector Dan Hellyer to their Feb. 2 meeting to continue the discussion on how current zoning bylaws apply to various uses of church buildings situated in residential areas.

At question was whether the board has the power to restrict or regulate the non-church use of the recreational facilities at both the First Baptist Church, located at 50 Parker St., and the parish hall owned by St. Michael's Church, located on Somers Road.

The issue came to the attention of the board in November 2009, when abutters to the First Baptist Church complained of increased traffic, noise and light pollution at the First Baptist Church, the result of the church renting out its gymnasium to local basketball leagues including those run by the town's Recreation Department.

At the Feb. 2 meeting Planning Board Chair Michael Przybylowicz opened the discussion by saying, "At the last meeting, following [Atty. Donahue's] appearance, members had questions about what types of uses were allowed outside the traditional [uses of church properties], and that caused some confusion about our role."

He said a work session earlier that day between Director of Planning, Zoning and Conservation Robyn Macdonald, Donahue, Hellyer and Vice-Chair Donald Anderson had made it clear "churches were exempt from special permit [oversight]." Should the issue in question have involved a special permit, then the board would have had some jurisdiction on the matter.

Donahue reiterated that for the board, the First Baptist Church issue was purely a site plan matter.

"We have a lot of power in special permits, but not much in site plans," Anderson said.

"We need to focus on the site plan," Przybylowicz stated, indicating that this is the board's actual area of jurisdiction in this matter.

Anderson indicated that determining whether or not the use of church recreational facilities by non-church groups "is assigned to the building inspector."

He then said, according to information provided by Heyller, the basic interpretation of the current zoning bylaw indicates that the use in question by "a church or a [non-profit] organization is allowed in a residential area."

"His interpretation, and that of his predecessors, is that [in the case of] a group such as the Boy Scouts or the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) or such groups, if they use a church facility, because [these groups] are also non-profit, it is allowed," Anderson said.

Planning Board Clerk Michael Carabetta brought up the question if, in relation to abutter complaints, there could be some restriction of hours or days of use at such a facility under current zoning laws. Donahue indicated that these types of uses are not regulated now.

"Hopefully, any issues with scheduling can be worked out with the town government," board member George Kingston said. "We should be able to work this out within the town government and with the selectmen."

Following the meeting, Macdonald told Reminder Publications that the First Baptist Church still had some aspects of their original site plan that were not in compliance.

"They have submitted a revised plan; however, we are still waiting for the revised lighting plan," Macdonald said of First Baptist. "Following that, the board will schedule a meeting with the church to review those plans."


In other business, the Planning Board approved a press release for publication soliciting volunteers to serve on a committee that will be reviewing the town's current zoning bylaws with an eye to updating the provisions.

The board will be looking for a total of four volunteers. They hope to have representatives from the business and manufacturing communities as well as a homeowner and a builder.

"We will be in the process of revising and modernizing our bylaws and we will welcome input," Anderson said. "Everything is tying in to modernizing the zoning bylaws."

The board also rejected a proposed exemption to zoning bylaws pertaining to town buildings which would have allowed the town to exempt from their own bylaws height, frontage and parking space requirements around the current town hall to allow for building expansion.

The board agreed that the needs of the current government are quickly outgrowing the available space in the present town hall, but that creating an exemption for the building was not in the best interest of the town.

"If we go down this path we're being short-sighted, and we will be opening ourselves up for more problems," Carabetta said.