ROCKLAND — City staff and a member of the Planning Board were at odds Tuesday night on the extent of a review required for the conversion of a historic Main Street building into a center for community events.

Robert Arena, who is co-owner of a company that purchased 500 Main St. in April, consulting contractor Adam Ackor, and architect Chelsea Lipham appeared before the Planning Board Oct. 4 to present plans in what was called a pre-application meeting.

The current plan is for retail shops; a two-story restaurant; three apartments; and a place for performing arts, music and community events such as weddings.

Much of the meeting was centered on whether the developer even needed to go before the Planning Board since the project is in an existing building in the downtown district. Code Enforcement Officer Wyatt Philbrook said that an opinion from the city’s attorney offered the view that defended both that the project could be reviewed by the Planning Board or that it did not require Planning Board approval.

Ackor, a former code officer for Rockland and former City Councilor, said he would not have required the project to go before the Planning Board. Instead, the code office and staff would have reviewed it to make sure it met city ordinances. Ackor said former code officer John Root took the same approach when he was code officer.

Planning Board member Carol Maines, a former city attorney for Rockland and former City Councilor, disagreed that the attorney’s opinion indicated that a Planning Board review was not required.

Maines’ primary concern was about the impact of the project on parking and traffic.

There is no requirement for projects in the downtown district to have on-site parking.

Maines said she wanted to make sure that a venue center that could attract 300 to 600 people would not snarl downtown traffic. She said the Board could limit the hours of operation of the center to minimize the impact. She also suggested a traffic study could be required.

Ackor asked what precedent the Planning Board had to limit hours of operations for a downtown business.

Planner Rhett Lamb pointed out that 500 Main St. used to be a church that drew 200 to 300 people. He said a full-fledged traffic study could cost $30,000 and several months to complete. He suggested instead that an estimate be made on the amount of additional traffic.

Ackor pointed out that businesses change hands all the time on Main Street with restaurants coming and going and they were not required to go before the Planning Board and made to undertake expensive and time consuming studies.

Lamb questioned why a single developer would be required to fix problems that already exists such as improvements to intersections.

The planner said going before the Planning Board was a way for the public to be able to voice comments on the proposal. Philbrook said having the developer come voluntarily and working with them is the goal.

A formal application is expected to be filed and go before the Planning Board on Dec. 6.

After the purchase, co-owner Valerie Landsburg said she and Arena want to make the North End of Main Street have its own personality and the events center would be part of that.

The historic building is the former First Baptist Church, built in 1836 before Rockland was incorporated. The building has undergone numerous renovations and additions over the nearly 200 years, including the brick and steel renovations around 1959. Most recently, Scrimshaw Cannabis leased space in the building.

Arena said the development would be done in stages with the retail space being completed first, then the apartments, with the restaurant being the final stage. The events center will be in the church part of the building with the stage to be located where the altar was located.

The project will need a review and perhaps approval from the Maine Department of Transportation and City Council since part of the proposal is for an addition on the second floor to have the restaurant extend out over the sidewalk.

Arena, who also owns the building across the street where Fiore is located, said he has approached the DOT about purchasing a grassy area adjacent to that building since it has no plans to expand parking at the ferry terminal. He said the state said it was not interested in selling. The developers have also purchased 8-10 Summer St., adjacent to 500 Main St., and there is parking on that property.

An elevator will be added to the building.

Rockland Code Enforcement Officer Wyatt Philbrook, left, and the Planning Board listen to the presentation for 500 Main St. Photo by Stephen Betts

500 Main St. in Rockland. Photo by Stephen Betts