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St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church

A group of Hamilton residents has filed a lawsuit seeking to stop the Roman Catholic Bishop of Helena plans to replace the historic St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church with a new and larger church building on the same site. 

A group of homeowners near a historic Hamilton church slated to be demolished and rebuilt has filed suit challenging the city’s approval of the project.

The group’s complaint, filed Thursday in Ravalli County District Court, claims the City of Hamilton’s Board of Adjustments abused its discretion when it approved a conditional use permit and variances to allow the Roman Catholic Bishop of Helena to demolish and rebuild the St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church.

In a 4-2 vote last November, the board approved a conditional use permit to allow for the construction of a new church on the same site where the historic building now stands on Hamilton’s Fifth Street. It also approved variances for parking, setbacks and height.

A church official said Friday that plans are moving forward to raise the estimated $3 million required for the project. A timber frame salvage company from Missoula is expected to begin work tearing down the building next January with construction of the new building to start in March.

Built in 1897 with money from copper king Marcus Daly, the 122-year-old church is one of the oldest wood-framed Catholic structures in the state, according to the lawsuit.

“The church was built before any zoning ordinances were in place and has the original church footing,” the lawsuit reads. “It sits amongst a residential neighborhood of historic homes and is itself a significant Hamilton landmark on the National Register of Historic Places.”

The suit said the Hamilton Board of Adjustments was negligent and violated the law by not subjecting the church’s justification for a need to double its current capacity to reasonable scrutiny. In addition, the group claimed the board “arbitrarily and highhandedly” ignored the public interest in the face of resistance by the community.

“Allowing the church to double its capacity by approving front and rear setbacks, increasing the height of the building and doubling the parking is detrimental to the health, safety, comfort and general welfare of persons residing in the neighborhood,” the lawsuit stated.

The group said there was no justification provided for siting a megachurch that serves the valley in the middle of a residential neighborhood in Hamilton.

The board approved variances that allowed the church to avoid setback requirement in order to achieve a larger building with double the seating capacity of the current building. It also approved a variance that allowed the church to be four feet higher, “blocking the views of property owners who have owned homes and paid taxes to maintain their historical neighborhood,” the lawsuit said.

Another variance doubled the amount of parking to 111 spaces, in part by requiring diagonal parking on residential streets in the neighborhood.

The lawsuit said the board did not follow the law when it approved the conditional permit and variances.

“The variances are supposed to be for hardship and for the public interest,” the lawsuit said. “These pertinent legal issues were ignored by the board…There is no documented explanation for hardship and the public interest.”

The lawsuits asks the court to either revoke and deny the board’s decision to grant the permit and variances or require it to have a new hearing with a temporary injunction in place.

Nansu Roddy, one of 10 neighbors who filed the lawsuit, said the church has not listened to the neighbors' concerns.

“It is dispiriting that we must file this appeal to protect our homes, property values and quality of life,” Roddy said. “We have not had a venue to express our concerns with the church. The leaders of the church have clearly expressed their disinterest in addressing any of our concerns.”

Roddy said she doesn’t believe that parishioners who support the demolition of the historic church in order to build a larger one are aware of the impact that it will have on the neighborhood.

“We want parishioners to have a beautiful place to worship, but not at the cost of losing our historic neighborhood,” Roddy said. “Parishioners come and go back to their homes, but we live here. We pay our property taxes. This appeal now becomes our voices that have not been heard.”

Sonny LaSalle of the church’s building committee said parishioners will gather at 4 p.m. on Sunday for an update on the construction plans, which will include information from the architect and the people doing the stained glass.

“We are moving forward and will continue to move forward,” LaSalle said.

The effort to raise $3 million is going “reasonably well,” LaSalle said. “We are past the halfway mark. I will be working with the chief fundraising person to devise a strategy to get the remainder. I’m confident we will make it.”

LaSalle said current plans call for Heritage Timber of Missoula to begin a salvage operation in January 2020. The church has asked for requests for proposal from six large Montana contracting firms. The plan is to hire a construction manager who will work with the architect to come up a construction plan that will be bid out later.

Current plans call for construction to get underway in March 2020, he said.

In response to the neighbor’s appeal, LaSalle said: “Hamilton has a process for these types of things and that’s the process we will be following. We are moving forward as allowed by the permit given and approved and will continue to do that.”

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Associate Editor

Reporter for The Ravalli Republic.