RICHFORD — For a second time the Richford Development Review Board (DRB) has denied an application from the Cornerstone Bridges to Life Community Center to turn a funeral home into a new location for the center.
“We are devastated,” said Lyle Willey, founder of the center. “We knew it was controversial, but we clearly expected it would pass.”
Tom Cook, the owner of 140 Main Street in Richford, site of the Spear Funeral Home, had offered to donate the building to Cornerstone.
DRB chairperson Joan Cheeseman said the decision to deny Cornerstone a conditional use permit for a small business hinged on parking and changes to the character of the area. “It was very difficult,” she said of the decision. “A lot of people really felt that the community center should be allowed to go there.”
The vote was 3-2. One member of the DRB wasn’t present for the public hearing and another had an outside communication with a party involved in the hearing and had to recuse herself.
All of those who voted were adamant about their positions and unlikely to change their minds with more discussion, according to Cheeseman.
Forty people attended a public hearing in February with all but one person expressing support for Cornerstone.
Yet in a letter to Willey that accompanied the decision, Cheeseman said, “There were multiple neighbors vehemently opposed to the change in their neighborhood.”
Asked about the discrepancy between her letter and the people who spoke at the hearing, Cheeseman said, “There were a lot of people who privately came to talk to us because they knew they’d be crucified at that meeting.”
Acknowledging that only formal testimony offered either in person or submitted in writing can be considered by the DRB, Cheeseman said she cited the other conversations to show that “everybody wasn’t for it.”
The issue, she insisted, was that the project didn’t meet the requirements for a village residential district. “If it had been in a mixed use district, it would have been a walk in the park, because who doesn’t want this?” said Cheeseman.
The funeral home used the parking of a nearby All Saints Church during funerals. The church had offered the use of the parking lot to Cornerstone as well.
But that was not sufficient, according to Cheeseman. “In a village residential area your parking has to be onsite,” she said.
Asked why onsite parking is required when street parking is available in the area, Cheeseman replied, “I didn’t write the manual. I didn’t vote for these laws.”
The town’s by-laws require one parking space per 300 square feet for a small business. Cornerstone had intended to use only the 5,000-square-foot area on the bottom floor and had sufficient room for seven parking spaces, according to Willey.
Asked about those requirements, Cheeseman said the rule was one space per 300 square feet “or our judgment.”
Events held at Cornerstone require more parking than is available, she said.
Cornerstone does host a senior meal once a month with 30 to 50 attendees, but not everyone who attends drives, according to Willey.
It also holds adult education classes with 24 students, reparative board meetings, and after-school tutoring and activities.
Both available on street parking and parking at All Saints would be more than sufficient for the center’s activities, suggested Willey, particularly since the fire limit for the building is 50 people.
During services at All Saints and events at the parish hall, far more cars park along the street than Cornerstone would ever need, according to Willey.
Willey also pointed that the parish hall, known as Dorian Hall, serves as a community center regularly accommodating large gatherings. Those events are already taking place in the neighborhood, Willey noted. The neighborhood is not, he suggested, “a pristine residential area.”
Unlike the Bingo nights formerly held at the parish hall, most activities at Cornerstone are over by 5 p.m., according to Willey.
“It’s quiet residential neighborhood,” said Cheeseman, pointing out that there are six or seven large Victorian homes in a row on that section of Main Street.
The decision refers to the conversion of 140 Main St. from a residence to a business, but the building has rarely been just a residence. It was originally built by a doctor to serve as both his home and office. The Benoit family then bought it and used it as a residence, said Cheeseman.
However, it has been a funeral home for decades. Although no funerals have been held there in quite some time, it is being used for storage and other business purposes.
In February, Andrew Richards, who lives directly next to the building, endorsed its use as a community center, telling the DRB that converting the building back to a residence would be an expensive undertaking.
Cheeseman said the building could be used as both a residence and a business by an attorney, accountant or hairdresser, for example.
Asked how many members of the DRB live in the neighborhood, Cheeseman replied, “We all do. Richford is a very small town.”
Asked why the board did not simply place conditions on the permit such as limiting the center’s hours of operation or requiring a formal parking arrangement with All Saints in order to limit the impact on the neighborhood, Cheeseman said, “Conditional use would be something … that would fit in the character of the neighborhood and wouldn’t change the character of the neighborhood.”
Conditional uses are generally those uses, such as a small business in a residential area, which might be permissible under some circumstances but not others. As its name implies, DRBs may place conditions limiting the use of a site within a conditional use permit. A limit on hours of operation is a typical condition.
“We fit the criteria for conditional use,” said Willey.
“We never considered conditional use,” said Cheeseman. “We never got beyond the parking and change to the character of the neighborhood.”
Cornerstone has 30 days to appeal the DRB’s decision to the Vermont Environmental Court, but Willey indicated that is unlikely. The board does not want to do anything that might reflect poorly on the building’s current owner, he said.
The center’s current lease requires them to make a decision about purchasing the building it now occupies. That decision will need to be made in the next two weeks.
The center is now working out of One Main Street, which is not handicapped accessible. In addition the building is poorly insulated and has propane heat, which the center is struggling to afford.
“We really need to know is the community behind us on this,” said Willey.
The center has been in existence for just two years, and Willey attributed its success to the hard work of the volunteers who run it.
“It’s amazingly successful because of the hard work of a handful of people,” he said. When something like this happens, “it just takes the wind right out of them and people lose heart,” he said.
This was the second time Cornerstone had sought permission to move into 140 Main St.. In the fall it requested a variance, which was denied after several weeks.