When property owners near a proposed business development show up at a zoning hearing, it often erupts into a clash of harsh words.
At Wednesday night's Hermitage Zoning Hearing Board meeting, there was a calm discussion. Developer Mark Hudson listened to and talked with neighbors about their concerns over his planned pizzeria and microbrewery at Morefield and South Hermitage roads in the former St. John's Russian Orthodox Church.
The church has been closed for about a decade and past attempts by previous owners to turn it into everything from a doctor's office to a beauty salon failed over nonzoning issues.
Hudson bought the building and land 18 months ago and is looking to transform the church into an intimate pizza restaurant, which will also brew small amount of craft beers. He plans to upgrade and lease the building to the business which will run the operation.
In order to do that, Hudson said he needs exemptions and variances from the zoning board.
Among the zoning changes he seeks are an increase in the allowable floor space, a reduction in landscaping in one area and a reduced buffer zone in another.
Hudson and others involved in the project said the business would have 92 seats, including 26 on a patio to be created on the east side of the building. They described the restaurant and brewery as being "upscale'' and said it would not operate after midnight.
The owners of the project weren't identified. However, in open testimony, the manager of the business was identified as John "Jack'' Laeng, the retired CEO of the nonprofit Sharon-based Primary Health Network.
The restaurant and brewery would be integrated as a single operation and initially employ between 15 and 20.
An essential issue for the project is that zoning for the area calls for 1,500 square feet of floor space for a business to operate there. Hudson said he needs 5,118 square feet of space in order for the business to succeed. The existing floor space of the church plus a small addition would create the needed space. However, Hudson said, he wanted to preserve the appearance of the church as much as possible.
Projects turning a former church into a restaurant and brewery have been completed in other parts of the country. The closest one is The Church Brewery Works in Pittsburgh.
An entrance to the Hermitage business, which would be named the Stone Church Pizza and Brew Pub, would be located off of South Hermitage Road with the exit on Morefield, Hudson said.
At one point, neighbor Duane McCullough asked the zoning board to provide all the details of the project such as lighting, fencing and other factors that might affect the property. Zoners told him that information is part of the hearing process.
"You can come to my office and look at anything you want,'' Hudson told McCullough and several of his neighbors. "We'll work with you.''
The board paused the hearing for 30 minutes to allow Hudson to explain the project in detail to the property owners. As they all gathered around a table, Hudson showed them the architectural plans and answered their questions. One woman was concerned the restaurant would place a Dumpster near the patio and that the garbage would spill onto homeowners' land.
"You have my word we won't put a Dumpster anywhere near the patio,'' Hudson told the group.
After the break and more testimony, the board met behind closed doors in a half-hour executive session, before returning and approving all of Hudson's zoning requests.
After the hearing, Hudson said work on the project would begin in a month or so with the possibility of the business opening as early as mid-summer. The decision by the board allows for an appeal to be filed within 30 days.