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Council delays rezoning of St. Rita's Church

Wednesday, March 19, 2014   by: Jamie Lyle

Monday evening's regular City Council meeting saw residents once again voice their concerns regarding the former Catholic church on Douglas Street.

St. Rita's Church, which had bought adjacent lots a few years back for parking, along with owning some land in the back and to sides of the church that have been used for dedications, has been sold to developers, upsetting some of the former parish members.

Currently, the owner of the building is seeking approval from council for the church to be rezoned into a multi-residential complex, although those who live in the neighbourhood feel that by allowing more than two families to live in the large structure, along with concerns over rezoning, will result in congestion and a devaluation of the surrounding properties.

These issues and more were brought to council's attention in the form of a presentation by local resident Phillip Penna, who is trying to find a compromise.

“Tonight, I presented an idea of something that all the parties involved could pursue in terms of a discussion that could meet everybody's needs,” says Penna, who was at council acting as an individual, but is also a part of a loose knit organization called 'Restore our Church's Trust.'

“But what I'm encouraging people to do is to talk to one another, to continue to find a solution that would be beneficial to everybody in some way, shape or form,” he says.

His idea was to physically relocate the church off of the site, hopefully to St. Mary's Cemetery, so that the area would have a chapel for those who wish to pray for the deceased, which will also allow the structure of the church to continue to actively serve as a sacred space in a new location.

“I'm not saying it's the best idea," says Penna.

"The best idea for me is to have it stay where it is and it's a church right where it is,” he adds.

The compromise of moving the church to a new location would allow all parties to move forward by building a residential dwelling and moving a church to a site where it could be put to use.

Penna also questioned as to whether or not council had legal authority over the selling of church lands or areas that are deemed to be a sanctuary due to canonical law, which falls outside of a municipality’s regular tax and legal system.

He pointed out that the owner's reasons to convert the church into a multi-residential complex may not met the conditions of Canon Law, which requires a grave cause to allow the lands to revert to secular use, although when a church is sold, the primary motivating factor is usually to save the costs of running extra churches.

“This (solution) would just alleviate that issue altogether,”Penna says.

What is being proposed by council is that there be a rezoning of the property in order to allow the church to be converted into up to 8 apartments, a motion that was withdrawn for the time being.

Some residents who live in the area are also concerned that the church conversion could result in having inadequate parking for a multi-residential complex.

Parking, currently designed for a 1.1 ratio, is hoped to be moved to a 1.5, meaning that, if the building had 10 units, 11 parking spots would be available but with the increased parking, 15 would be available and on-site for any new residents.

Community Services Chair Councillor Dave Mendicino says that while moving the church would prove to be too costly, he feels that the parking spaces could be worked out.

“We’ll see if it can be tweaked a bit,” he says.

Council also had a presentation from another local resident, Monique Peters, who found it strange that without reason, the motion of rezoning of St. Rita's Church was neither defeated nor passed as scheduled for Monday evening yet moved again into discussions and without clarity as to what exactly was to be sorted out so that the issue doesn't go before the OMB.

“There was no discussion, no nothing, just a bunch of texting,” says Peters, who felt that some members of council were holding 'a meeting within a meeting,' while asking no questions of her after she had given her presentation.

Peters also wanted to know why the Municipal Heritage Committee hasn't been invited to be involved in the process, or have been allowed into the building or site, and did not get an answer from council.

She says that the rezoning should not proceed without an evaluation to see whether or not St. Rita's, a church that is nearly is old as the community itself, would qualify as being a justifiable heritage site and perhaps receive a protection order and funding from the Province in order to maintain the area as a historically significant building within the city.

Councillor Mendicino says that he's concerned that developers have become worried about issues regarding the OMB, and have started to become a little guy shy about the conversion while favouring more simple and straight forward projects that may not be such a controversy.

“It's a fine line, but in this case here, that's one reason to pull it back just to see if there's any other fine turning that can be done, but ultimately in two weeks, council will vote on a recommendation,” he says.

“If (residents) want to take it to the OMB for the sake of taking it to the OMB, then quite frankly, I won't support that,” he says.

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