ALBANY -- St. Mary's College High School has agreed to limit the use of a proposed new chapel on campus, a concession to neighbors worried that the chapel would bring new intrusions to the residential neighborhoods surrounding the school.
The limitation, proposed in a letter dated July 10, is the latest development in a years-long struggle between St. Mary's and its neighbors over the school's expansion plans.
Donna DeDiemar, a member of the Peralta Park Neighborhood Association, reacted with cautious optimism.
"It's a vast improvement over what they offered up before," she said. "I'm not really in a position to say whether it resolves it or not without discussion with the other members of the association."
Problems between the school and its neighbors date to a 1993 expansion and, according to neighbors, the negative consequences it caused. The current expansion was first proposed in 2006. The plans have changed since then in response to neighbor comments but have still not been approved by the Albany Planning and Zoning Commission.
At the Planning and Zoning Commission meeting on June 26, speakers, including DeDiemar, mentioned the possibility of legal action by neighbors if their concerns weren't addressed. The commission ended up meeting in closed session at its July 10 meeting regarding possible legal action. DeDiemar said the neighbors were not threatening legal action, simply asserting their rights, and that a closed session discussion of threatened legal action by the commission was premature.
Current plans include the new chapel, which would seat 200 people, a new music building and an expansion of a kitchen in the student center. Outside of the planning process, there have been mediation and informal talks between neighbors and school officials that led to a resolution of most of the neighbor's concerns.
"Donna and Brother Edmond decided to sit down and they made quite a bit of progress," Albany City Planner Anne Hersch said.
However, the chapel, along with the expansion of the kitchen, remained unresolved, according to DeDiemar.
"You build a kitchen and a bigger chapel, there's the potential for wedding receptions," DeDiemar said.
Brother Edmond Larouche, president of St. Mary's, said that "It has never been the intention of St. Mary's to use the chapel for weddings all the time. The real intent of the chapel is to service the students and local community. And also our alumni needs. The idea was to have it available for memorial services."
However, to this point, the school had not been willing to put a numerical limit on the use of the chapel.
In the July 10 letter signed by Vivian Kahn of Kahn Mortimer Associates, which has been representing the school, St. Mary's proposes as a condition that the chapel be "primarily intended for use by St. Mary's students, faculty and staff on school days and only infrequently on weekends and by the Brothers Community. St. Mary's does not propose to use the chapel for religious services that are open to the general public in the same manner as a parish church at any time.
"As a special exemption," the letter continues, "the chapel may be used two times annually for religious ceremonies for members of the wider school community, such as weddings, memorial services or masses."
"I think we've worked very hard internally and with the neighbors," Larouche said. "I think there's a tremendous amount of effort to accommodate. The school never had these conditions previously. I think we're making progress."
The Planning and Zoning Commission will be off during August, so the item cannot come up for its review until Sept. 11 at the earliest.
According to Larouche, construction won't begin until quite some time after approval because the school still needs to raise the money for the project.
"That'll take a while," he said.