RICHFORD — The Cornerstone Bridges to Life Community Center, the first of its kind here, can no longer afford to heat its current building and therefore must move.

Forty people came to Tuesday night’s meeting of the Richford Development Review Board (DRB) for a hearing on a permit request regarding that decision.

Cornerstone, established two years ago, is seeking to relocate to the former Spears Funeral Home at 140 Main St. from its current location at 1 Main St.

The center, headed by Baptist minister Lyle Willey, serves a broad section of the community from first graders to seniors. Willey also has offered to incorporate a welcome center into the space if the move is approved.

The area in which the center is seeking to locate is zoned residential. Under Richford’s zoning by-laws, single, double and multi-family residential uses are allowed in the district, along with churches, semi-public facilities such as a town halls, and accessory structures such as garages and sheds. Small and home businesses are allowed as conditional uses. All other uses are prohibited.

Cornerstone has applied for a conditional use permit as a small business of 5,000 square feet or less. As its name implies, a conditional use is allowed under certain conditions. Such uses must be approved by the DRB, which may place requirements on the applicant, such as limiting hours of operation.

Previously, Cornerstone had been denied a permit for the same location because they applied for a commercial use over 5,000 feet, which isn’t allowed in the residential district, explained DRB member Tim Green. “Our hands were tied the last time by the by-laws,” he said.

Pointing out that the center primarily serves the elderly, Chris Deslisle said, “I don’t really see what the problem is,” with the center being located in a residential neighborhood.

“The issue is: can it go in that location under our by-laws,” said DRB chair Joan Cheeseman.

Introducing the proposal to the board, Willey said he did not believe the center would create an increase in traffic over the building’s previous use as a funeral home.

“We also believe it’s a positive for that end of town,” he said. “We do not see it as a burden in terms of number of people or traffic.”

“We’re open to reasonable conditions to avoid any adverse impacts on the residents or that end of town,” he added.

Brandy Sickles owns a home on Intervale Avenue, across from the proposed location. She was the only person at the meeting to oppose the project. “I think the traffic will be increased,” said Sickles. “There were very few funerals there.”

Andrew Richards, who owns the adjoining property, spoke in favor of the project. “I find them very responsible people and I find them to have very responsible events,” he said of Cornerstone.

Richards also drew attention to the building itself, calling it “a landmark building in Richford.” He had considered purchasing the building. “It’s very expensive to convert it back to residential. It’s a commercial building,” he said.     Although in an area currently zoned residential, the building has always had a commercial use. Hayden Janes, who called himself the oldest citizen in the room, said the building had originally been built by a physician who used it as a combination home and office. It became a funeral home in the 1960s.

“Now we have an opportunity to get Richford moving ahead,” said Janes. “I think the board would be very remiss if they say ‘no.'”

“In the history of Richford there’s never been a true community center,” said Kelly Richards. Programs at the center help to ease the isolation of seniors and most are intergenerational, she noted. “It’s a wonderful intermingling of the generations,” Richards added.

Cornerstone has programs for seniors on Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and once per month serves a senior dinner. The dinner is served by fourth and fifth grade students. Nursing home residents come to the center for bingo, and cosmetology students from the Cold Hollow Career Center come to the center twice per month to do manicures for the seniors.

Levi Fuller explained the programs for children and youth. The center runs a one on one tutoring and mentoring program for students in first through fourth grade, an afterschool program once per week, and a parent and child group.

Cornerstone runs an adult learning program twice per week with 24 adults. Sharry Lacey said there is a waiting list for the program.

At its current location, Cornerstone volunteers must put down a heavy particleboard ramp whenever someone in a wheelchair needs to enter the building, explained Lacey. The funeral home is fully accessible.

A young girl, Emily Russin, who identified herself as a user of the center, spoke in favor of the move. “We’ve had some people fall on the steps,” she said of the current location. “I think this might be safer for the elders.”

However, the primary reason for the move is the cost of heating. The center heats with propane, the price of which has skyrocketed this winter, and cannot afford to heat its current location. If unable to find a more affordable location the center will have to close, said Lacey.

Welcome center

Green asked whether Cornerstone could be open enough hours to serve as a welcome center.

Willey said that would have to be worked out. He suggested a welcome center might have its own volunteer staff. The goal is to create a welcome center that works with Cornerstone, he said, not for Cornerstone to be in charge of the welcome center.

Sickles had concerns about traffic to the proposed welcome center, saying to Willey, “I want to know the impact on my property from your development.”

Citing the experiences of other welcome centers in towns having larger tourist industries, Richards said he doubted the welcome center would generate a lot of traffic or demand for parking. “We’re not going to see 30 or 40 people arriving at the welcome center. It’s more like one or two,” he said. Richards added he would be happy to have users of the welcome center park in the two spots in front of his property.

A local church also has offered the use of its parking lot for any overflow parking during events at the community center.

Willey said most of the activities at the center are ones people walk to, pointing out the center doesn’t have any dedicated parking at its current location.

“I think this is a great opportunity for Richford, a great opportunity for Cornerstone and a great opportunity for the owner of the building,” said Joe Pollander, Cornerstone’s current landlord.

Following the hearing, the DRB will meet a second time to discuss the application in executive session.

Cheeseman said the DRB will most likely issue its decision in two weeks.