The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, November 12, 1999


Amid concerns, BOA gives blessing to Congregational Church plans

On Thursday, November 4, the Carlisle Board of Appeals met to consider the Carlisle Congregational Church's application for a variance that would allow expansion of the School Street facility. After a methodical presentation of facts by the church representative, impassioned pleas by abutters, and lengthy consideration by the board, the church was given the green light to proceed with its plans, as well as continue its use of pre-existing non-conforming parking.

Church building committee representative Kirk Ware reminded the board of the Congregational Church's original intention to erect a sanctuary 30 years ago. However, the current expansion design presented a new obstacle the new structure would project 3.8 feet into the required 20-foot setback from neighboring Carlisle School. The church had presented plans to its neighbors, and had, in particular, elicited reaction from Carlisle School officials. Ware presented the board with a letter in which the school expressed its approval of the church's plans. A survey crew had also assessed the property.

In response to a query from associate member Phyllis Zinicola, Ware reported that the church had added a berm to the parking lot, restricting driveway width and discouraging questionable parking practices, thus eliminating a zoning problem in the front of the church. The board appeared satisfied with this sign of compliance. Board member Hal Sauer pointed out that the "non-conforming areas have been so always." This reduced the problem at hand to a corner of the sanctuary.

Ware pointed out that should the church's request be denied, it would lose 28 out of 300 proposed seats for the sanctuary, or one entire row. The plans showed, however, that two exterior areas reserved for expansion would more than compensate for the lost seating. To this, Zinicola responded, "Can't you build into the expansion area now?"

"The original plan was longer and narrower," explained Ware. "We've shortened it up. The original plan would call for the sanctuary to be right off the driveway. The neighbors thought that came too close. We changed the design to go back 62 feet. What was lost in length was made up in width."

"But if you did build into the expansion area?" Zinicola persisted.

"That wouldn't be optimal," Ware answered. "People would be seated around a corner."

After a discussion of the proposed steeple height, and what part of the expanded building would face the school, Ware assured the board that if denied, the church would move forward with a new plan, or return to its original plan. He emphasized that such changes would represent a substantial cost to the church.

State law for churches

"We're not asking for a variance," Ware explained. "Under chapter 40A, Section 3, of the Massachusetts General Law, churches and schools are treated differently, and are not subject to zoning regulations but to a 'standard of reasonable dimensional controls.' "

To this, Zinicola countered, "Have you looked into this a little bit more?" "The starting point is the zoning bylaw," Ware explained. "You look at the impact of the rules on a specific site. To lose one row out of eleven rows is a major problem for us. And the school, in some respect, represents some municipal interests involved here."

Zinicola speculated that the law protecting churches and religious nonprofit organizations might be subject to reasonable restrictions. "According to a strict reading of the law, maybe the town has already spoken. Also, 'reasonable' has to be based on a particular case."

Abutters' concerns

The board opened the discussion to comments from the floor. Greg Sullivan of School Street pointed out that "reasonableness also applies to abutters" and that the new addition would be much higher with a tall, illuminated steeple. "It wouldn't be the worst thing in the world if the church scaled back its plans," he said.

Sauer pointed out that the board could only control the width of the new addition, not the height, all other dimensional requirements being met by the plan. "The change would essentially be invisible to you," he said. To this, an unconvinced Sullivan replied, "It would tame it down, soften it a little bit."

Carol Sullivan of School Street pointed out that the construction would bring down many trees. "We'll see the entire brick expanse of the school," she said. "This will horribly alter our quality of life."

At this, chair Terry Herndon showed her the building plans to demonstrate the minimal impact if the church altered the plans by 3.8 feet or less. The abutters were not mollified. "We're going to lose our neighborhood," remarked Carol Sullivan. "We'll be part of a school/church complex."

During the board's discussion, Sauer concluded that the reduction of church seating did indeed represent a hardship, and that the relief requested was not deleterious to the neighborhood and school. Changing the design would move the addition closer to the residential abutters and the street. Finally, the letter from the school confirmed that the changes were not consequential to the school. Herndon added that because there was a school next door instead of a house, there was consequently less of an impact on abutting neighbors.

While Zinicola had pointed out that the plan designers had known that their plans would require a variance, she also added that the presence of a school as a neighbor made the property unique.

Herndon asserted that the church had done a reasonable job in preparing for what was not a large variance. "Churches are important," he asserted before the approval was unanimously granted. "Many of these church people are townspeople."

1999 The Carlisle Mosquito