LACONIA — Former Mayor Ed Engler, who came up with the idea of the city buying downtown church property, said the purpose of the acquisition was not only to create more downtown parking but to save the 91-year-old structure from a wrecking ball.
The Diocese of Manchester had submitted an application to tear down the church, but then asked that the request be put on hold. A public outcry had emerged to save the neo-Gothic building, which many consider architecturally, culturally, socially and religiously important.
What Engler didn’t know was that when the purchase and sale agreement was finally signed after he left office, a provision would state that the demolition permit application would remain legally valid.
He also didn’t know about, and he questions, a Planning Department opinion that there is no limit for how long such an application can remain pending.
The city has released minutes from five non-public sessions this year and last in which the City Council discussed and agreed to purchase two buildings on the church campus — the John W. Busiel House and a Catholic school for $1.14 million.
The minutes are extremely brief.
There was no mention of a discussion Engler recalls in which the City Council told City Manager Scott Myers to put a provision in the purchase and sale agreement that would do away with the demolition permit application.
Why was an opposite provision included in the agreement?
“All subject to negotiations,” Myers said in an e-mailed answer to this question.
If the Diocese of Manchester had received a demolition permit, it would have a fixed time to use it or lose it, but since it just has the application, there is no time limit, city Planning Director Dean Trefethan said.
A historic district now takes in the St. Joseph campus. District restrictions make it harder to raze a building, but that doesn’t apply to the church because the demolition application was made just before the district was formed.
Engler said demolitions are covered in a section of the city code where 1- and 2-year time limits apply to certain permits. While these limits are not specific to demolition applications, perhaps they would apply by inference.
“I would seek legal advice on whether these provisions would pertain to demolition as well,” Engler said.
Part of the demolition permit review process involves a review by the Heritage Commission, which has tabled the matter on request of the diocese.
Why not seek a legal opinion as Engler suggests?
“Because The Heritage Commission has not started the formal process of reviewing the demo permit,” Myers said. “Once that happens, the clock can begin.”
It’s not clear how the commission could start such a review absent a desire by the diocese that it do so.
Behind closed doors
Another aspect of the purchase deal is that it was all done in private. The City Council kept taxpayers in the dark while obligating them to buy the properties.
A bond for the purchase was listed on the city budget only as “XYZ” so nobody would know its purpose. Myers told councilors in an email obtained by The Laconia Daily Sun not to ask questions about this in public lest people find out a purchase was in the works.
The minutes that were released do not indicate that anybody questioned whether taxpayers should be let in on how the City Council wanted to spend their money.
Engler, Councilor Mark Haynes and Councilor Bruce Cheney say they don’t recall any questions about the transparency of the transaction.
The City Council received criticism previously for spending $342,000 on real estate without any public discussion or votes in public during City Council meetings, or even any notification to the public after the fact.
Those purchases came to light only after stories appeared in the Daily Sun.
While City Manager Scott Myers and Mayor Andrew Hosmer say it is legal to approve land purchases in non-public sessions, government transparency advocates say it’s advisable to let the public know before local officials decide to spend large sums of public money.
Other cities, such as Franklin and Concord, decide on land purchases in public. Officials in Plymouth and Tilton say they do such purchases in public through the Town Meeting process.
The way it is handled in towns is not germain as Laconia is a city with its own legal regulations, Engler said.
“It’s a republic, not a direct democracy,” he said.
The citizens have the ultimate say at the ballot box.
“They can vote them out if they don’t like it,” Engler said.
Church officials wanted to keep the purchase quiet until they and the city could release a joint news release.
Representatives of the Diocese of Manchester have said they want to save the church. They subdivided the church property so that the two parcels could be sold while it retained ownership of the church itself. It is working with a society that has been formed to preserve the structure.
Andrew Hosmer, who is both mayor and a member of the St. Joseph Preservation Society, did not return numerous calls and texts for comment over several days.
Councilor Mark Haynes said the city and the diocese have been working cooperatively.
“Both parties have reached a point where everybody is acting in good faith,” he said. “The diocese wants to save it. I’ll take them at their word.”
Sacred Heart Catholic Church, also in the downtown area, is the main house of worship for the St. Andre Bessette Parish. That’s also where the Catholic school is now located. Operations were consolidated at Sacred Heart to save money.
At one time both churches were full, with French Canadian parishioners typically going to Sacred Heart and the Irish going to St. Joseph.
Haynes said his family went to St. Joseph.
“My parents were parishioners there for all their lives,” he said. “All of us kids went there, were married there, confirmed there, took holy communion there. I don’t see what the point was in closing it.”
Tom Bebbington, spokesman for the Diocese of Manchester, said the parish and the diocese will work together to develop a future use for the building that will be in line with “the sacred and proper character of the space and in harmony with the mission of the Church.”
He didn’t say why the diocese seems intent on keeping the demolition permit application alive.
“It would be inappropriate to speculate on the future of the church building until that planning process and the sale of the rest of the property are complete,” he said.