LEWISTON — Councilors asked Bartlett Street neighbors to talk to each other, hoping to head off bigger problems smoldering between members of a mosque and nearby property owners.
Former City Councilor Denis Theriault, owner of two buildings on the west side of Bartlett Street, just north of Adams Avenue, told councilors he shouldn't have to work so hard defending his property.
"This happens all the time. These are a confrontational people," Theriault said. "I'm tired. I don't think I should have to spend my nights playing policeman protecting my property, and neither should my son."
He outlined problems he and neighbor Elmer Berry have with the mosque, located across from him at 256 Bartlett St. and used by Lewiston's Somali Bantu residents, over two hours Tuesday night at a City Council workshop.
Theriault alleged members of the mosque have regularly parked on his property, taking spaces from his tenants, since the mosque opened last year. When he complained, they escalated. They've used their cars to block his driveways, left trash behind, thrown rocks onto his property and destroyed his first "No Trespassing" sign.
He responded by putting up a sturdier sign and taking pictures to document what he saw.
They responded, he said, by verbally threatening him. But Theriault, who carries a concealed handgun, said he will not be threatened.
"One individual approached me and came onto my property and told me I didn't have the right to take his picture," Theriault said. "When his companion walked around to my side, I unzipped my jacket and put my hand on my weapon."
Theriault said the city made a mistake when it approved the mosque for that space last year.
"It's almost like the Somalis have been set up to fail," he said. "They don't belong in a building that size for what they want to do. But they're there."
The city approved the use of the building at 256 Bartlett St. as a mosque in November 2009, requiring building owner Joseph Jenkins to provide 17 parking spaces nearby and to limit occupancy to 98 people at a time. City officials believed that more spaces were unnecessary since most people attending the mosque would walk or carpool.
Code Enforcement and Planning Director Gil Arsenault said the city recognized the limited parking in the lot. It has space for up to seven vehicles on site, but only if members drive on property belonging to next-door neighbor, Sparta Vending owner Elmer Berry.
Theriault said the Somalis do not have that permission. Berry has started putting up traffic cones to block his property from the neighbors.
The city required the mosque to rent the rest of their necessary spaces from 199 Bartlett St. That lease ends in February 2011 — and so does the mosque's conditional-use permit. They'll have to find additional parking or find a new place to worship.
Mosque member Abdul Ali, speaking for the elders in charge of the mosque, said it rarely draws more than 40 worshipers. The only time larger crowds are expected are during the two Eid holy days. The most recent was Nov. 17.
Ali said the members are negotiating to find a larger venue for those special occasions. But he said no single person is in charge of the mosque and urged Theriault to simply tow the cars of people that park in his lot.
Theriault said that was his plan.
"Beginning tonight, it's an immediate tow order on any car that is not supposed to be parked there," Theriault said.
Councilors asked Theriault, Berry and city staffers to meet with the members of the mosque, scheduling a meeting by this Friday.
"It's unacceptable that this is happening," Councilor Renee Bernier said. "You can't just go parking on people's property, so we need to get this sorted out before it gets worse."