A longtime Derry resident was asked to fine-tune his plans for a Unitarian-Universalist retreat center on his property before the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) endorses them.
Paul Doolittle of 33 Old Chester Road appeared before the Zoning Board of Adjustment Feb. 20 to appeal an administrative decision by Code Enforcement Officer Bob Mackey. Mackey had determined that the Sun Point Farm Sanctuary didn’t meet the definition of a “church” in the town zoning regulations. The Zoning Board wasn’t sure what it was either, and directed Doolittle to do more research and come back with more definite plans.
The property is Parcel ID 09138 and is zoned LMDR (Low Medium Density Residential).
Doolittle, a lifetime Unitarian-Universalist, had offered the family farm as Sun Point Sanctuary since the 1970s. “We’ve had a group of people interested in meditation, yoga, organic farming,” he told the ZBA. When his parents moved in in 1980, he curtailed the sanctuary activities. Now, with both parents deceased, he decided to start it again, with a grander vision.
Doolittle wants to form an “intentional community” interested in spirituality and organic farming. His plan includes staff members living on site in a cluster of buildings near the main farmhouse, with one primitive retreat cabin located in the woods. Clustering the buildings would leave the nine acres across the road free for organic farming, Doolittle said.
Doolittle said the proposed facility would be educational, with an “earth care” theme. The members would interact with the community, he said.
The Rev. Patrick McLaughlin of Chester, pastor of the Manchester Unitarian-Universalist congregation, said Sun Point Sanctuary would “help people find ways to live more harmoniously with each other and the planet.”
Mackey said that while churches are allowed in every Derry zone except Industrial IV, he wasn’t sure where Doolittle’s project fit in. He and Town Planner George Sioras looked at the definition of a church.
“I could not say that this was a church in the traditional sense,” Mackey told the board. “I decided that the best path was for Paul to appeal my decision, and bring it before this board.”
While resident Tammy Gray spoke in favor of the proposal, saying it would be “good for the community,” some neighbors were not so sure. Richard Callahan said, “Is this a church? Is this a retreat center? There are too many unanswered questions.”
Drew Olsen, another abutter, expressed concern that, “Churches don’t pay taxes” and the town would lose Doolittle’s property tax.
Olsen also wondered what the project would do to the value of homes in the neighborhood, and pressed for a better description of what the five staff houses would look like. “We have to follow the rules just to put up a shed,” he observed.
Doolittle said he had no intention of owning the facility. He said he would transfer the property to the Unitarian-Universalist church, to the local congregation or an independent organization. He is still working out how that would be done, he said.
But Doolittle said he is getting too old to farm the property and he wants to see it continue as an organic farm. He also wants to expand the retreat aspect of the facility, but needs more help. “Unless I have staff, it will not be what I dreamed of it being,” he told the board.
Member Teresa Hampton said, “I hate to sound indelicate, but I always follow the money. I don’t understand why, except for the money, you would sell this property. If it becomes a church, the taxes you pay will be eliminated.”
Doolittle responded that most of the property is in current usage and the town receives little tax income from it.
“Call it what you want,” Hampton said. “There will be a tax savings for you if the church takes over.”
Doolittle acknowledged that the proposed facility would receive town services, but said, “If there are children living here, we will contribute” to the town’s tax base.
Chairman Allan Virr said, “The cart is in front of the horse here. The transfer of ownership has to occur in order for us to say, ‘This is a church.’” The current application, he said, is from “The Church of Paul Doolittle.”
Doolittle responded that the church wants to know if the project is feasible before it goes any further.
Secretary Donald Burgess reminded Doolittle that the auxiliary buildings would have to be up to town code, “whether you’re a religious organization or Joe-down-the-street.”
“We are willing to work with you, but this is a work in progress,” Virr told Doolittle.
The motion to grant Doolittle relief from Mackey’s administrative decision failed, 0-5. Burgess said he voted no based on the fact that it is not currently a church; Lynn Perkins said he was not comfortable redefining the property in a broad sense; and Hampton said she agreed with Mackey’s administrative decision.
Virr said, “A lot of things have to happen before Bob can make an affirmative decision.”
Doolittle and McLaughlin agreed to further work on the plan.