ROCKPORT — The Rockport Zoning Board of Appeals voted Wednesday night, Oct. 12, to ask the Planning Board to provide more detailed findings of fact concerning plans by the Knox County Homeless Coalition to create a housing community in former doctors’ office buildings off Route 1.

A group of neighbors, mostly from Sea Light Lane, filed an appeal seeking to overturn the Planning Board’s July 28 approval of the project.

The proposal is called Hope for the Future, LLC, and it is not a homeless shelter. The Knox County Homeless Coalition plans it as an 18-unit affordable housing project at 6 Madelyn Lane. This lane is a dead-end off Route 1 that only serves these two former medical office buildings. There is no connection to any other local streets or neighborhoods, though Sea Light Lane is nearby (see map).

Appealing the project are Elizabeth and Michael Hanley, Virginia Carboy, Katherine Killoran, Patrick Killoran, Timothy Killoran, Steven Levine, Hannah Lewis, Ryan Lewis, Marianne Linder, Anthony Muri, Janet Muri, Judith Rose, Lorraine Streat, and Philip Streat.

If the project goes forward, it will provide a mix of studio apartments and larger apartments to serve area families. Those who move into these buildings, likely starting sometime in 2023, will have access to public transportation to get to school and work, according to coalition leaders. They will have staff onsite to provide check-ins, including security and social workers. The groups have partnered with the Area Interfaith Outreach Food Bank to provide healthy food, and there will be opportunities to make sure the residents have access to health care.

It is that sense of shared services and community that forms the crux of the neighbors’ arguments at the Zoning Board hearing.

Attorney and neighbor of the project Anthony Muri presents his case for overturning Planning Board approval. Photo by Daniel Dunkle

Attorney and neighbor Anthony Muri argued during the meeting that this project represents “congregate housing,” which he said is not allowed under the town’s ordinance in this particular zone. Congregate housing refers to an arrangement where people have their own small apartments but utilize communal space for dining, housekeeping services, personal care and assistance and transportation needs. According to statements at the meeting Wednesday, the project does not specifically include space for shared dining, but Muri argued that 25% of the building space and one whole floor of building two is dedicated to shared service space.

Muri said the pre-application letter on the project more clearly showed this congregate arrangement, but the actual application, when it came, was far less specific. He believes this was intentional because someone had realized it could be rejected as congregate housing.

He also argued the Planning Board erred in deciding this shared space was professional office space under the ordinance, citing that professional office is defined in the ordinance as serving the public.

The Planning Board had discussed this congregate housing issue in the July 28 meeting and decided the project best meets the ordinance’s definition as being residential multi-family housing. In particular, the Planning Board decided this because each housing unit or apartment has its own kitchen and the eating arrangement is not shared.

Muri did not explain in any detail how this injures the neighbors, but said it was “reasonable” to have a concern about safety, use, property protection and personal protection. He made a point of stating that the services for this housing project included Maine Behavioral Healthcare.

This was very similar to the wording of the appeal document, which stated, “One does not need to be an expert in homelessness to know that it is a problem frequently associated with drug and alcohol dependency, crime, and, in some cases, violence, among other problems.”

Bob Jackson spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting and raised the question of whether this project would serve “schizophrenics.” He said he understood there were good intentions behind the project, but argued it needs “guardrails,” and there have not been enough specifics about what those guardrails would be.

Attorney Rendle Jones of Camden, representing those proposing the affordable housing project, questioned whether those bringing the appeal had standing. The requirement for standing in a case like this includes having participated in the Planning Board proceedings and being able to state that this project injures the party in some way. Being a direct property abutter is a major factor in establishing standing.

Attorney Rendle Jones of Camden represents those supporting an affordable housing project during the Zoning Board meeting in the Rockport Opera House Oct. 12. Photo by Daniel Dunkle

The Zoning Board ruled that some of the Killorans who signed onto the appeal own property abutting the project and have standing. Jones questioned Muri being able to make the case since he did not have standing. The Zoning Board had questioned Muri about his ability to represent the other neighbors who do have standing in addition to hearing the argument that previous court proceedings had found that in these group appeals, when some members of the group had standing, others could be included in the discussion.

On the topic of whether professional offices have to serve the public to meet the definition in the ordinance, Jones argued the residents of the housing development would also be members of the public, thus fitting that definition.

The Zoning Board could not make any decision based on new evidence that was presented. It can only decide based on the record from the Planning Board process, and it must determine whether the Planning Board had the information needed to make the decision that it did and whether it made any errors in its findings.

In that part of the process, Chair Geoffrey Parker said the Zoning Board needed more information to proceed with its deliberations. The board seemed to feel there was not enough information in the Planning Board minutes and the videos from the meeting, though there were findings of fact voted on during the Planning Board meeting including votes to find the application complete and to find that it was in compliance with various parts of the ordinances.

During the meeting, several residents spoke in favor of the development including former State Rep. Joan Welsh. She said housing for low income is a huge issue in the area and this is exactly the kind of project that is needed. She said the project would house people who are vetted and well-supervised, and the issues raised about safety and property protection are not truly serious concerns.

Dr. Mark Eggena of Pen Bay Medical Center also expressed support for the project noting the housing crisis in the community and the need for services.

The Camden Herald spoke to Knox County Homeless Coalition leaders including Executive Director Steph Primm and Board Chair Caroline Morong in August about the project. They noted the extent of the housing crisis, which is only getting worse. In Knox County, the median home price increased by 28% in 2021 alone, according to the coalition. The problem with affordable housing is also a problem for area businesses, which have been crying out about the lack of workers available.

However, the leadership said they recognize that projects like this create concern in the neighborhood. They stress this is not a shelter or even a handout, but a hand up to local people in need.

“They are strong and brave, not lazy and crazy,” the group said.

Obstacles to working families in the area include difficulty finding transportation or arranging child care and coping with inflexible work schedules that exacerbate these problems. Women leaving abusive situations also seek help. About 50% of those helped through the coalition’s efforts are children.

Through the Knox County Homeless Coalition, a team of 60 staff members work with as many as 759 individuals in a year to set housing goals for lasting stability, and there is a waiting list of 225 people who need services.

Those services are not just about putting a person in a room or a bed on any given night. The coalition provides case management, which means social workers or other professionals check on the wellbeing of the clients. People do not simply fall off the grid, but they have someone looking out for them.

The organization also helps connect people with a place to stay including beds at the Hospitality House in Rockport, the Landing Place for teens in Rockland, at hotels and motels, and in tents in some cases. They make sure those they work with have enough to eat, are safe and have appropriate health care as much as possible.

The group also creates opportunities for people to continue their educations or gain job skills for new careers.

They said there are concerns among the neighbors that they will be seeing people wandering around the area during the day or that there will be other problems. However, the leadership notes this would be home to the residents, and it would have strict rules that would be enforced. The days of people being turned out of the Hospitality House in Rockport by day are over, and that would not be an issue at the new facility.

If the project moves forward, they will fully renovate the buildings, which are still set up in the floor plan of the former medical practices. There will be the apartments, as well as office and shared program space. There will be a playground area for children.

The construction will be in two phases with the first building hopefully ready for occupants in early 2023.

Who might be living there? “It’s the person who serves you cappuccino at Zoot,” local leaders said.