© The Stoneham Independent

STONEHAM, MA - Vineyard Community Church pastor Joel Hubbard's faith in his hometown finally harvested some fruit.

With his congregation's future no longer imperiled, the religious leader departed Town Hall's Hearing Room last Tuesday night with permission from the Board of Selectmen to open his new church headquarters at Stoneham's Pleasant Street Crossing Building by Spring Street and the old Central School.

The site plan approval, granted in a 4-to-1 vote, reverses a Sept. of 2017 decision by the Board of Selectmen to deny the petition, which a number of abutters in the nearby Gould Street neighborhood vehemently opposed due to parking and safety concerns.

Ultimately, junior Selectman Shelly MacNeill provided the necessary swing vote in order to overturn that previous site plan decision. Board chairman George Seibold, who joined with MacNeill last September to vote against and thereby reject the application, remained unconvinced last week that the religious organization would be able to sufficiently satisfy those pedestrian safety and parking availability issues.

Seibold's sentiments were shared by a handful of Gould Street residents, who continue to express doubt about the church group's parking arrangements. According to those critics, the town has been completely inept in enforcing existing parking and traffic regulations around the neighborhood, and they see no reason to believe that trend will change any time soon.

"Why does Gould Street always have to take the crap?" roared a visibly upset Paula DiBartolomeo, of 7 Gould St. "I can't even pull out of my driveway. Are you going to pay for my hospital bills [when I get hit by someone speeding through my neighborhood?]"

Before rendering her key vote, MacNeill admitted she struggled with the petition, as she too worries someone will get hurt in a tragic accident unless the town does more to regulate parking and traffic in the area.

However, she also pointed out that Hubbard and other churchgoers had made considerable concessions in order to mitigate the neighborhood impacts, including:

• Inking a parking lease agreement with nearby Gould Street business Lake Industries, which will allow church patrons to use up to 22 parking spaces at its industrial facility on Sundays;

• Agreeing to contribute as much as $3,300 for new signage along Gould Street, as well as for a digital speed limit sign on Pleasant Street to calm traffic;

• Promising to retain a police detail for any weekday events for which attendance at the church is expected to outstrip the available parking at the commercial condo building.

"I hope in my heart we do our best to make sure all of these stipulations are monitored and enforced by the town. The town's lack of enforcement has led to this [neighborhood's] mistrust, and rightfully so," MacNeill commented.

Had the Board of Selectmen not reversed its decision last Tuesday night, Hubbard would likely be forced to permanently shutter the church before the congregation even had a chance to officially complete the relocation from its old headquarters in Saugus.

According to local attorney Steven Cicatelli, who began representing the church shortly after its leaders were notifiied they could not receive an occupancy permit due to an on-site parking shortage, town officials would have lived to regret a second denial of the site plan request.

Specifically, Cicatelli has repeatedly argued that while the church petition has run into zoning compliance problems due to the change of use at the Pleasant Street Crossing site, a future for-profit enterprise seeking to purchase the condo suites would likely face no such limitations, as a host of commercial uses are considered a by-right operation.

The Main Street lawyer contends those types of businesses will result in greater conflicts with residential abutters over parking and traffic impacts, as they will compete with the YMCA daycare and a professional services business within the building for onsite parking.

By contrast, the Vineyard Church, which has peak parking needs after normal business hours, has suggested it would blend-in better with the other commercial condo owners.

"My client wants to be a good neighbor and citizen and work with the town. But at the end of the day, if he can't use this property, the church fails and the property goes into foreclosure. It's going to get sold to four businesses, and I would respectfully submit that is more dangerous."

Remand hearing

Earlier this month, the Board of Selectmen announced the underlying site plan case had been remanded back to the town by a Mass. Land Court judge, who was considering the Vineyard Community Church's legal appeal of the previous site plan denial.

The religious organization, which purchased four condo suites within the old box factory for $1.4 million back in Oct. of 2016, immediately ran into zoning problems after pulling permits to reconfigure the interior of the 5,000 square feet of office space.

At the time, Building Inspector Cheryl Noble, noting the new owner was a changing the uses permitted under the existing site plan for the building, ruled the petitioner would as a result have to prove a right-of-access to as many as 41 spaces on the property.

However, Vineyard Church officials could not obtain that proof from the condos' Board of Trustees (then managed by developer Joseph Cunningham), so they asked the selectmen to intervene through the site plan hearing process in the spring. of 2017.

The Board of Selectmen refused to get involved in that private spat and ultimately ruled Hubbard, in being unable to prove the church had control of any parking spaces, had failed to submit a complete site plan application.

In the months that followed, Vineyard Church officials managed to join with the YMCA and other condo owners to seize control of the building's Board of Trustees. A new parking plan was then drawn up, through which the petitioner realized that a number of spaces, situated by the railroad right-of-way, actually encroached onto municipal land on the railroad right-of-way.

Hubbard and fellow building trustees then reportedly negotiated a deal with town officials, in which the municipality was granted an easement to the condo building's land by the parking area in question. Through that arrangement, Stoneham designated those 12 spaces as public and therefore available for future users of the bikeway.

In exchange, the condo owners, though acknowledging the public spaces are available on a first-come, first serve basis, will also be allowed to use those spots.

Next, the church, with access to just eight on-site parking spots, inked a deal with Lake Industries for the use of 22 additional spaces on Sundays. With that deal in hand, Hubbard and Cicatelli approached Stoneham's Zoning Board of Appeals and obtained a parking variance.

That ZBA variance, issued last summer, allows the church and all other businesses within the Pleasant Street Crossing Building to continue operations, despite lacking 90 of the 98 parking spots required under existing Stoneham zoning bylaws.

The church, able to combine those eight spaces with the 22 parking spots made available through its satellite arrangement with Lake Industries, then returned before the Board of Selectmen in September for a site plan permit.

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