PITTSFIELD — The group seeking to preserve and restore the former St. Mary the Morning Star Church building wants the City Council to set a deadline for the developer proposing a Dunkin' Donuts restaurant on the former church campus on Tyler Street.
Dianne DiNicola, a member of the Friends of St. Mary's Ad Hoc Committee, read a statement to councilors on Tuesday that asked them to proceed with a hearing on a special permit for a drive thru sought for the restaurant by developer Cafua Management Co.
The hearing has been postponed twice by the council as the Community Development Department and the developer haven't reached agreement on the city's request for funding to cover engineering and other expenses expected during a review of the project impacts.
The matter now is scheduled for March 22, and the Friends of St. Mary group is asking the council to set a deadline of that date, "to provide the required fees and expenses to the commencement of project review," according to the letter.
It adds: "If the fees are not provided by that time, we request the City Council to open the public hearing, receive testimony, and begin its deliberation of the project. We are of the understanding that failure to provide project review fees are grounds for denial of the special permit."
The council took no action Tuesday on the request.
Council Vice President John Krol said Wednesday that he agrees with the St. Mary's group that "it's time for Cafua to bring this project forward."
If the council is legally able to do so, "I would absolutely like to see a deadline set," Krol said.
Councilor at large Peter White expressed similar concerns, saying "I would like to see something move forward," especially since the vacant church building is deteriorating. But he cautioned that any action by the council would have to be reviewed by the solicitor.
Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Morandi said, "I sympathize with the Friends of St. Mary." He said there is little that can be done to lure another developer with a different proposal while the Dunkin' Donuts plan is pending.
Morandi noted that the Zoning Board of Appeals also has to act on a request from the developer for a variance to extend a commercial zone by 50 feet to accommodate the restaurant. That item has been continued by the ZBA to March 23.
Ward 1 Councilor Lisa Tully said, "I agree with what the [St. Mary's group] is saying."
The council has asked Cafua for funding for studies related to the restaurant proposal but that hasn't been forthcoming, she said. "It's hard to give a permit if they don't comply," Tully said.
Cafua, which owns several Dunkin' Donuts in the area and hundreds in Massachusetts and other states, planned in 2014 to purchase the former church campus from the Catholic Diocese of Springfield and raze the church and other buildings before constructing a restaurant and drive thru on the site.
But after an outpouring of public opposition to that plan in September 2014, the company withdrew its first proposal. In August 2015, the company submitted a plan that leaves the church building intact and subdivides it onto a separate lot; offers to donate the church to the city and creates a Dunkin' Donuts with a drive thru elsewhere on the 2.6-acre church campus.
A restaurant is an allowed use in that city zone, but a drive thru operation requires a special permit from the council, which would need a supermajority with at least 8 of 11 councilors in favor.
Cafua previously requested a restaurant and drive thru at First and Fenn streets at the site of the former Plunkett School, which the company subsequently purchased and razed. But the council voted against a permit for that drive thru, and Cafua has appealed that decision in Massachusetts Land Court. The case has gone through to final arguments, and a decision is expected in the near future.
In its letter Tuesday, the St. Mary's group lists its reasons for the request to proceed with the permit hearing and a council vote. Those include continued deterioration of the former church building during the delay, specifically to a portion of the roof, which is leaking; the "constant uncertainty" over who will own the property, which the group believes is preventing "at least one viable offer other than Cafua" being pursued with the diocese; and that uncertainties over the proposed Dunkin' Donuts plan results in "tenuous circumstances surrounding who will own the St. Mary campus" that has "stopped our ability to attract other interested parties."
Officials representing Cafua could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-4247.