Developers have submitted an initial proposal to develop apartments in the building that once housed Peirce Elementary School in Belfast, which will require zoning changes but minimal exterior alterations. Yet some neighbors are concerned that the renovations and rezoning would result in unwanted changes to the area.

Reservoir Ventures LLC of Stockton Springs, owned by Matt and Jessie Francis and Tyler Eads, presented a proposal to develop the former school at 24 Church Street in Belfast, which previously was a music school and most recently a medical marijuana growing facility. The final layout for its 7,500 square feet would include eight separate residences: six two-bedroom apartments in the top two floors and two single-bedroom units in the basement. The plan would require a zoning ordinance upgrade not only for the Peirce property, but also for development of the James P. White house on the opposite side of the street and a former group home at 80 High Street.

Belfast Planning Board Chair Steve Ryan explained that under current law, rental housing is not allowed at the Peirce School and the White House. “These two properties are uniquely limited to developing residential apartments only under a condominium form of financing,” he said, adding that they could be developed for uses other than residential housing. The Peirce School proposal was presented in a preliminary form to the board for guidance and is expected to be returned in an updated form after the applicants “refine their details,” Ryan said.

At the Belfast City Council’s Dec. 18 public hearing on  a planning board recommendation to the zoning ordinances that govern the properties, Church Street resident Christopher Hyk raised various points in opposition to the project. He said that the proposed $1,500 monthly rent is not “affordable renting in Belfast.” He noted that beginning in 2014 the city and area residents came to an agreement that the Peirce School and White House properties would be zoned as condominiums rather than rental units. 

“And that was to try and make sure that the inhabitants had a vested interest in the upkeep of the properties because of their unique historical associations and architectural merits,”?he said. “We’re switching the goal posts once again now and I wonder why we’re doing it. Once was enough.” 

Hyk also questioned what “fenestration changes” the developers would be making on the building and compared it to renovatations made on the former Crosby School in Belfast after its purchase in 2016. 

“I’m sure they’re energy efficient, but they aren’t exactly in keeping with the building and we will have to live with this. We will have to live with increased traffic, it will be a parking lot,” Hyk said. “And speaking for myself and, I guess, the owners of the James P. White House, we’re against this change and we would prefer things to remain as they are for now. For at least a few more years, to see if another person will come along who’s willing to make the school into, perhaps, an academy again or perhaps something more suitable in terms of maybe four condominiums.”

Church Street resident Rick Cronin spoke in favor of the conversion project, which he called an opportunity for the city. Kirk Moore, another Church Street resident, said he opposed the “density” of the Peirce proposal. “Four units seem to be quite enough, eight units seems to be too much. We’ve heard that this will negatively impact a lot of the surrounding owners. We have put a lot of money into our houses. We’ve taken old buildings, renovated them, rejuvenated the houses. The trend has been actually to return these houses to single occupancy, single-family residence.”

Ryan said at this point the properties must be developed under rules for contract rezoning. “The two processes are obviously connected in their direction, but they are separate processes and can have totally different outcomes in the end,” he said. “The City Council is the final arbiter of both.”

City Planner Sadie Lloyd explained the council must vote on the proposed ordinance change that would allow the properties to be developed for multifamily housing beyond condominium form. “If the council approves this ordinance change then the group proposing to purchase and convert the Peirce School can then continue with the Planning Board review,” she said.

The planning board made comments during its draft review of the project, according to Lloyd, who said those focused on “minimal changes” to the former school’s exterior. The specific items included the location of on-site snow storage, outdoor spaces for resident social gatherings, safety elements for a propane-fill nozzle, relocation of a sign onto the property from a right-of-way, and the species of shrubs proposed to shield parking, she said.

“The main items the board focused on were needing some proof of financial ability to not just purchase the property but complete the renovations as proposed,” Lloyd said, explaining Reservoir Ventures would likely work with Belfast Economic Development Director Thomas Kittredge, who would then provide a statement to the planning board.

Because of the minimal exterior changes and the existence of sufficient parking, the board made “no significant requests or recommendations in terms of changing the proposal or project,” Lloyd said.

A Need for New Rentals

Ryan said city officials are pursuing approval of “a number of new ordinances” to aid creation of additional rental housing within the city. “The Planning Board and City Council are both in favor of smart development of businesses, employment opportunities and yes, rental housing options for workers, seniors, families and other types of residents,” Ryan said. “There is a side debate about what cost-level of housing should be prioritized, but most of us hold the conviction that any rental housing will loosen up the market and benefit all price levels.”

Tenley Thurston, owner of property management firm By The Bay Property Rentals, said that “the rental market is very tight in-town Belfast.”

“A nice, remodeled, one-bedroom apartment with all utilities included averages around $1,000 to $1,100 per month,” Thurston said. “It is possible to find a one-bedroom rental in Belfast that has not been updated in the $750 range with utilities included.”

Based on interactions with landlords, Thurston said the range for a house with three or four bedrooms is between $1,400 and $1,600 per month, without utilities included in the rental cost, while two- to three-bedroom homes “on the outskirts of Belfast” are currently priced between $1,000 and $1,100 without utilities. “A three-bedroom condo at Springbrook on the Crocker Road in Belfast, with heat included, rents between $1,200 [and] $1,400 per month, depending on the unit,” she said.