The future of Hamilton’s St. Francis of Assisi Church appears headed back to court.
On Monday, the Hamilton Zoning Board of Adjustments completed a marathon review of the conditional use permit the Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena needs to replace the 124-year-old church built by Marcus Daly with a larger modern building.
The debate dates back to November 2018, when the zoning board approved the first conditional use permit. A group of landowners filed suit in January 2019 that said the board abused its discretion. The parties asked a district judge to vacate the first permit and remand the matter back to the board in April 2019.
That was followed by meetings that drew large crowds. A decision was expected to be made last March, but the pandemic further slowed the process.
On Monday, the Board of Adjustments accepted a joint-use agreement between the city and church that addressed the long-simmering issue of parking. The agreement resolved the last variance the Diocese needed to resolve for the conditional use permit.
Zoning Board of Adjustments Chair Darwin Ernst said this was by far the longest case that’s come before the board.
“I’m absolutely happy that we are at the end of it,” Ernst said. “I wish there was a way to make everyone happy, but I would appeal to everyone in the community to understand that this was a decision made by the board.”
That decision was made after going through an application 685 pages long and considering over 70 public comments.
“I think we definitely listened to and considered the entire content,” he said. “That was the key. We made sure that everyone read every single page. I read every page. It was a lot.”
St. Francis of Assisi Deacon Jim Kaney said that while he’s glad the zoning board made its decision, he is certain that it’s just the first step in the process.
“I don’t believe we’re through with it,” Kaney said. “I’m pretty sure there will be litigation. My reaction is pretty reserved at this point. I am thankful that we have that portion out of the way.”
Kaney said the Helena Diocese supports moving forward with the project.
Hamilton attorney Michael Montgomery served as counsel for the Diocese.
While there was a lot of adversity surrounding the process to revise the conditional use permit for the new church, Montgomery said he believes the outcome created a plan that’s better both for the church and the community.
“The processes worked,” he said. “We now have a very smart plan.”
“I’m hoping the neighbors will see they were heard,” Montgomery said. “I listened hard because I am a neighbor. They had valid points … this is literally the kind of decision that might be able to bring people together once we get out of the fray.”
Nansu Roddy is a neighbor and member of the Southside Historic Preservation Committee who has been opposed to the plan to tear down the historic church.
She was disappointed in the board’s decision, but thinks the matter will get a better hearing in district court.
“We’ve worked really hard to protect our neighborhood and protect our property rights as property owners,” Roddy said. “It’s just been very, very frustrating along the way … We are frustrated, but feel very committed to the project. We always wanted this to go to district court.”
From the onset, Roddy said it appeared that city staff were supportive of the church’s proposal to replace the historic structure and did not fully consider the issues raised by neighbors.
“We will just continue to pursue our goal,” she said. “Our plan is to appeal it to district court.”