Plan to modify church OK’d
>Wilton space will become community center
WILTON – Converting the former Sacred Heart Church at 47 Maple St. into a community center and a variety of other uses moved one big step closer to reality on Monday, Aug. 29, with the acceptance of the complex plan by the Zoning Board of Adjustment.
The board considered the five required variances plus a special exception requested by the Rev. Robin Lunn as a package, saying all of them would be required. They considered the plan over three evenings beginning Aug. 16.
The variances cover two dwelling units on the half-acre lot and provide for parking within the setbacks and a sign larger than permitted. The special exception will allow a larger entry to the church that would include an elevator. It would be closer to the lot line than allowed.
Lunn’s plan would convert the existing rectory into two low-income apartments, develop the church into a cafe and coffee shop, and provide a home for the Open Cupboard Food Pantry, co-working space and event space.
The property, owned by the Catholic Diocese of Manchester, would be owned and operated by a New Hampshire-based nonprofit organization called Sanctuary 47. Its slogan is Work.Eat.Learn. Live.
The Diocese closed the church for regular services in 2010 after the retirement of the last resident priest, but the rectory has been used by the food pantry, and the Community Center has been serving monthly senior dinners in the basement. The large community room in the basement is also used by several local organizations.
The property was offered to the town, but voters rejected it, citing costs of renovations, maintenance and liability.
The church was built in 1881 and seats about 250.
With two exceptions, neighbors on Maple Street were enthusiastic about the plan, and even those liked the concept. One neighbor questioned the hours for weekend events, and the hours were modified. The other said, without offering any proof, that it would devalue property.
Board members said the area would be more affected if the church were left empty and it deteriorated.
The board continued the hearing twice, from Aug. 16 to 23, and from Aug. 23 to 29 mostly because of problems with parking at the site. With reconfiguring the driveways and using some space within the setback, Lunn was able to create 18 spaces, short of those required by the ordinances for a commercial property.
While parking was the major concern of the ZBA, it wasn’t by the neighbors. They noted the funeral home in the next block and the American Legion home near it. Events at those places frequently have people parking along the street well beyond the church.
As one resident noted, "We live on Maple Street. We expect it."
The diocese also placed a number of use restrictions on the property, excluding any use not in keeping with its faith, but Lunn said she could meet those.
In the end, the ZBA approved the plan as presented, leaving the details of parking to the Planning Board, which will now receive the plan.
Lunn is an ordained Baptist minister living in Milford and currently serving a church in Jaffrey. She has spent many years working in community outreach.
Last spring, she said, "When I saw the church, I could see a lot of possibilities. I was excited."
Lunn estimated the conversion will take at least three years and cost $500,000. Work will be done in three phases. Phase 1 is the conversion of the rectory into apartments, with the lower level handicapped accessible. Phase 2 includes landscaping, parking designs, signage and fundraising. Phase 3 will convert the sanctuary on the upper floor into cooperative space for business startups. Completion of the project is projected for summer 2020.