Laconia Councilor David Bownes

David Bownes, the Laconia city council's representative to the planning board, unsuccessfully tried to get Christopher Boldt, an attorney representing the Diocese of Manchester, to disclose the status of the demolition permit the Diocese had received allowing for the demolition of St. Joseph's Church in Laconia.

LACONIA — The city planning board voted unanimously on Tuesday to approve subdividing the property at 30 Church St., into three separate lots.

The announcement by the Diocese of Manchester that the sale of St. Joseph’s Church that would have resulted in its demolition has been called off, is being welcomed as good news but not a guarantee that it won’t be razed.

The approval paves the way for the Manchester Diocese to sell the three buildings on the 2.5-acre property — the Busiel mansion, St. Joseph’s Church and the former Holy Trinity School — either individually or jointly.

This summer’s announcement by the Diocese that the stone church built in 1929 was to be torn down to facilitate the sale of the property, spurred a groundswell of support to try to save the edifice.

The St. Joseph’s Catholic Church Preservation Society was formed and spokesman Linda Normandin has said the nonprofit’s intent is to assume the financial burden of maintaining the building from the parish and to seek to have it designated as a Roman Catholic shrine, oratory or chapel in perpetuity.

During Tuesday’s public hearing, David Bownes, who serves as the city council’s representative to the land-use board, broached the subject that the Diocese still holds a valid permit to demolish the church.

After the Diocese’s attorney, Christopher Boldt, detailed the parking plan for the property, Bownes said he had a question.

He prefaced it by saying that he did not know if it was germane to the current discussion.

“A demolition permit remains in place. What considerations have been made with respect to that?” Bownes asked.

“You’re absolutely correct; it is not germane to this conversation,” replied Boldt, of the Donahue, Tucker & Ciandella PLLC Meredith office.

Earlier, Nicole Duquette, the engineer for the subdivision, said the lone physical improvement to be done is the installation of a separate water line to serve the church, needed to satisfy a condition of approval by the municipal water department.

Boldt said the existing parking lot that has 85 spaces will be shared between the properties, but he said appropriate easements won’t be finalized until a sale occurs.

John Moriarty, who chairs the Laconia Public Library Board of Trustees, said a gentlemen’s agreement sealed with a handshake has existed between the library and the church, in which a connector between the abutting properties was opened, allowing for shared parking.

“We’ve had a wonderful relationship with the abutter and as the library was closed on Sunday it was synergistic,” Moriarty said.

The library’s board of directors has voted to close the connecting link between the properties, once the final Mass is held at the church, Moriarty said.

City Planner Dean Trefethen clarified that the board would be voting on the subdivision request only. Once the lots are sold, if the new owner or owners propose any change in use of the buildings, they would require either administrative approval or a site plan amendment. Similarly, if the new uses are no longer religious in nature, the property which is collectively assessed at $2.8 million by the city, or a portion of it, would return to the tax rolls.

The Diocese filed for and received a permit to raze the church building which is grandfathered under the current zoning ordinance, which allows the city to delay but not deny a property owner’s request to demolish a building.

In response to Most Rev. Bishop Peter Libasci’s stated intention to tear down the church as part of efforts to consolidate St. Andre Bessette parish into one campus, a group of advocates rushed to set up a historic overlay district designed to protect structures that are architecturally and culturally significant from being bulldozed. The planning board again discussed the proposed ordinance Tuesday night but decided that at least one more meeting is required to finalize a draft for consideration by the city council.