St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church

A proposal to demolish a historic Catholic Church in Hamilton and replace it with a new building came before Hamilton's Board of Adjustments Monday. A third meeting has been set for Jan. 30 at the Hamilton City Courthouse.  

The future of Hamilton’s historic St. Francis of Assisi Church will back in front of Hamilton’s Zoning Board of Adjustments Monday, Dec. 16.

The board plans to meet at Hamilton’s City Hall at 5:30 p.m. to consider three variances that, if approved, would allow the church to tear down the current structure and build a bigger building on the same site on Hamilton’s Fifth Street.

The same board approved variances for parking, setbacks and height as part of a conditional use permit on 4-2 vote in November 2018. That decision was litigated by a group of neighbors and others opposed to razing the historic church.

In April, the landowners and city agreed to ask a judge to vacate the conditional use permit and variances and remand the matter back to the Zoning Board of Adjustments for a rehearing. That request was granted.

On Tuesday, Hamilton Zoning and Floodplain Administrator Land Hansen said he couldn’t discuss the issue due to the litigation. But representatives from the church and neighborhood group were willing to offer their insights.

Sonny LaSalle, a member of the church’s building committee, said the current proposal reduces the overall size of the church by retaining the current setback at the front of the building and reducing the overall height.

The church plans to ask for three variances, instead of the original five.

It will request a variance from height restricts for the historic steeple, which the church plans to save from the original building. The steeple would be built to a height of 54 feet, 8 inches. The city’s zoning rules for that neighborhood set the height limit at 45 feet.

LaSalle said it’s not clear if bell towers are exempt from that rule.

A second variance would allow the new building to encroach into the alleyway behind, which LaSalle said is “not a big deal.”

LaSalle expects that most of the debate will be on a variance request for parking that would allow for 133 parking spaces (65 off-street and 69 on-street). If the variance is granted, LaSalle said the church would spend thousands of dollars to make improvements including curbs, sidewalks and gutters on the street where the majority of the parking would occur.

“Calculating how many spaces we need for parking is going to be a primary issue,” LaSalle said.

If the city opts to require the church to develop onsite parking, LaSalle said the church may have to look at demolishing the old parish building that’s currently occupied by MAPS.

“We could add 35 to 40 parking spaces there,” LaSalle said. “If the city requires that we have all parking spaces onsite and not count the street parking, we would have to tear that structure down and asphalt over it.”

Considering that most public buildings and businesses in Hamilton don’t have onsite parking, LaSalle said there are plenty of precedents that the board could use to accommodate the church’s request for use of street parking to meet that rule.

“The elephant in the room is going to be the parking variance and how the board of adjustments will view that,” LaSalle said.

Members of the building committee say the church has a number of issues that begin with a cobble foundation that’s crumbling, to century-old siding that will no longer hold paint, to a roof that needs to be replaced. The building’s single bathroom is so small that people in wheelchairs and those who use walkers can’t use it.

If the board grants the church a conditional use permit, LaSalle said it would be ready to bring in a Missoula firm to begin taking down the old church. The wood from the building would be repurposed.

There is a 30-day period following the granting of the permit during which appeals can be filed.

Nansu Roddy of the neighborhood organization said the group would likely appeal an adverse ruling.

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“There is no reason why we would stand down,” Roddy said. “We are legally in the right. … The clear and ideal outcome would be for the church to renovate the current building. That’s an outcome that would be backed by the community.”

Another neighbor, Deirdre Engelman, said that while the historical value of the church is important to the neighborhood group, “first and foremost to us is the size of the church that they want to put in our neighborhood. … This area is zoned residential. What they are proposing is too big for that lot.”

If the church wants to build a bigger building, she said it should follow the lead of other Hamilton churches that have outgrown their buildings and move outside of a residential area.

Parking is an issue for the neighbors. Engelman said the church currently has a parking lot behind the building, but no one uses it because it’s a longer and more challenging walk from there.

“They all want to park as close as they can,” she said.

The neighborhood group also challenges the need for expansion. Their volunteers have been counting people and cars attending the church over the last year. She said the church is rarely, if ever, full.

“We love the church and love the people who go there,” Engelman said. “We just don’t want a giant building in our neighborhood and all that comes with it. I hope and pray that we can come to some kind of compromise. I hope they will be able to save the church and do the changes they need to do.”

Engelman said the neighborhood group was heartened recently when a group of parishioners wrote a letter to the community in support of saving the historic building constructed in 1896 on land donated by the town’s founder and one of Montana’s Copper Kings, Marcus Daly.

The 122-year-old church is one of the oldest wood-framed Catholic structures in the state.

“Tearing this building down would like tearing down the Daly Mansion or county museum,” Engelman said. “Building a larger church here would really impact our neighborhood, but beyond that, history is very important in this town. It’s part of who we are.”