BARRE TOWN — After privately pondering the separation of church and state — or the lack thereof in the case of what was once St. Sylvester Catholic Church — the Select Board has agreed an easement is in order to facilitate the future sale of a historic property that just changed hands.

The problem, which was discussed during a meeting-ending executive session Tuesday night, doesn’t involve the Graniteville church that hosted its last mass a little more than a year ago, or even it’s neighboring rectory, which hadn’t been actively used for longer than that. However, it does involve a portion of the old rectory’s attached garage, which for better or worse, straddles the boundary between the 1.8-acre property Lucas John just bought from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington and the Barre Town Forest.

A survey conducted by the trust as it readied to sell the property earlier this year flagged the issue, according to Zoning Administrator Chris Violette, who said a boundary line adjustment that was initially viewed as the simplest way to solve it hit a roadblock in August.

Though it was approved by the Development Review Board at the time, Violette said Wednesday, the adjustment, which would have essentially involved swapping slivers of land, was quickly tripped because of strings attached with federal funding that helped underwrite the acquisition of much of the land that makes up the Barre Town Forest.

The Vermont Land Trust noted the proposal ran afoul of Internal Revenue Service regulations and suggested the easement approved by the Select Board after Tuesday night’s executive session.

The easement acknowledges and permits the encroachment on municipal property and with the Vermont Land Trust’s blessing will clear up what Town Manager Carl Rogers described as a “cloud on the title” of the property that could make its sale problematic.

It didn’t stop John from buying it earlier this month, but that was after a solution was in the works, and it appeared clear it would satisfy the town, which sought to solve the problem in a different way, and the Vermont Land Trust, which, Violette noted, authored the just-approved easement.

Though the Websterville Christian Academy obtained Planning Commission approval to convert the church property into a school earlier this year, it ultimately opted to solve its space crunch by moving to a property on Vine Street in nearby Berlin.

That left the diocese without a buyer until John expressed interest in the property as a home for himself and the mixed martial arts gym he was running out of space he rented above the House of Tang restaurant in Montpelier.

According to Violette, the prospect of a potential buyer triggered the Development Review Board’s aborted approval of a boundary line adjustment and, as was the case with Websterville Christian Academy in March, required special approval by the Planning Commission.

Violette said the latter was needed to re-establish lapsed residential use of the rectory and to alter the use of the church, which was built in 1895 — long before the area was zoned industrial.

Late last month, the Planning Commission approved John’s plans to convert the rectory into his personal residence and the old church into the new home of Granite City MMA – “a local for-profit community fitness center with its main focus on martial arts, women’s, children and law enforcement self defense.”

The gym, which will also be used for training professional MMA and Thai fighters, as well as professional grapplers, is already up and running.

In anticipation of the sale the church was stripped of its stained-glass windows, its oak pews and altar and other religious relics, which have been replaced by an MMA cage, a boxing ring, a weight room and a speed bag area.

Violette said John has expressed no interest in altering the exterior of the building and his interest is in the 5,000 square feet of open space he has quickly transformed into a home for the business he runs on the side.


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