Council faces conflicting demands in housing debate

By Stephen Betts | Jul 04, 2019
Photo by: Stephen Betts A proposal to convert this home at 215 Talbot Ave. in Rockland into a reentry house for former prisoners has sparked a debate not just on acceptance of people who have served their time in jail, but also on the issue of what constitutes a family.

Rockland — An effort by the Rockland City Council to meet the concerns of Talbot Avenue residents who fear the planned opening of a reentry house for former prisoners has led to a community-wide debate not only on acceptance of released inmates, but also on what constitutes a family.

The City Council gave preliminary approval June 24 and then again July 1 to an ordinance amendment aimed at regulating group homes such as the re-entry house.

The proposal would change the definition of the words "family" and "lodging, rooming or boarding houses."

Kathryn Matlack of Camden purchased 215 Talbot Ave. June 3 under the ownership of Freedom Path LLC so that she could create a place called the Unity House to provide housing and services for up to three recently released prisoners at a time. A house manager would also live at the home.

Unity House was originally proposed to open in mid-July.

The house had previously been used as a short-term rental.

The proposal, however, caught neighbors off guard, because they learned of the proposal from a real estate agent after the transaction occurred. Many of the Talbot Avenue residents turned out at two successive City Council meetings in June, demanding the City Council take action.

In response, Councilor Valli Geiger sponsored the ordinance amendment in an effort to regulate group homes. That proposal is now at the center of a controversy.

The current definition of "family" in the Rockland ordinance is people related by blood, marriage, civil unions, or adoption who reside together as a single unit and no more than three additional unrelated people. Alternatively, four unrelated people can constitute a family for zoning purposes.

The proposed amendment to the law would require that those people share in all household expenses, including food, rent, utilities and other expenses. If not, the house would be considered a boarding house and would require review by the Planning Board.

That proposed change has created a firestorm of its own.

Resident Amy Files said she empathized with the neighbors' initial reaction and the council's desire to respond, but that the ordinance is discriminatory and classist. In addition, the new ordinance would be further-reaching than regulating group homes, Files said. "This could have neighbors asking the city to investigate the personal relationship of unrelated people," she said.

Muriel Curtis, another city resident, said she had lived much of her life in communal housing arrangements. She purchased a home in Rockland last month and rents out the first floor and shares the second floor with three other people.

Curtis said it was "bull ..." for the council to try to regulate living arrangements.

"They want to look in our refrigerators. Then will they be looking in our bedrooms? Curtis asked. "In a communal home there is always somebody to ask how was your day, somebody to let the dog out if you’re sick, somebody’s birthday to celebrate. For a single woman with no family, I can’t think of a better living arrangement. I would be seriously hurt if my ability to live like this was legislated out of existence," Curtis said.

Rockland City Councilor Ed Glaser said he is not a lawyer, so he doesn't know all of the ramifications of the proposed ordinance amendment. "I don't know if it will accomplish what is intended, if it has too many unintended consequences, or if it is even something we wish to 'accomplish' in the first place," Glaser said.

He said the council will need to schedule a workshop with its attorney to get her view on it. "There are passionate people on both sides of this, and it will fall to the City Council to try to make a wise decision. I feel that as elected officials, we need to slow things down and let everyone have their say before we act. I view this ordinance amendment as a sort of 'place keeper' to give us the time to listen to everyone and try to figure out what is best for the whole community. We can act in haste and get it wrong, or be more measured and stand a chance that we get it right," Glaser said.

Councilor Valli Geiger agreed with Glaser.

Mayor Lisa Westkaemper, and Councilors Ben Dorr and Amelia Magjik did not respond to a request made Tuesday evening, July 2, for comment on the ordinance change.

Files pointed out that Rockland has a shortage of affordable housing and this ordinance would be counter to the council's goal of trying to improve that situation.

In March, the City Council approved a zoning change to allow artists to live in their work spaces at the Lincoln Street Center, the former school building located in a residential neighborhood now converted to space for artists' studios.

The council also tried to amend zoning ordinances to allow smaller homes and smaller lots throughout the city, but that was met with strong opposition from residents, who said it would adversely affect the character of their neighborhoods. The council backed off that plan and is contracting with a planner to work on ways to encourage housing through city zoning laws.

Comments (10)
Posted by: Gerald A Weinand | Jul 09, 2019 20:04

Curious what sort of discussion this will lead to:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jul/09/silicon-valleys-answer-to-the-housing-crises-charging-1200-for-a-bunk-bed-in-a-shared-house

 



Posted by: Ian Emmott | Jul 05, 2019 17:27

What absolutely amazes me about some comments at city hall is the absolute lack of comprehension of the question at hand. Forget this is in our community or state... and repeat the question out loud a few times. Shall prisoner transitional homes have local ordinance governing their establishment. Keep in mind this proposed llc was formed last month with no experience in running a home aside from volunteer time at the jail. There has been no input from dept of corrections. There is no oversight from the city. You’re right Steve...  maybe Rockland isn’t a good place to raise a family when you work your ass off and are called a nimby for calling bs. But I will thank Vallie for at least having  the courage to take this head on.

Mr. Weinand- thanks for being a gentleman in your response.



Posted by: Gerald A Weinand | Jul 05, 2019 16:12

Mrs. Emmott:

 

Please see 30-A MSRA §3001. Ordinance power

 

http://legislature.maine.gov/legis/statutes/30-A/title30-Asec3001.html



Posted by: Stephen K Carroll | Jul 05, 2019 08:35

Emily Thank you for this valuable information re: the city's rulings taking priority over state and Federal law. Perhaps we should pass a local ordinance requiring that state and Federal building be taxed like everyone else and let's require the State to pay their share of our schools.  I understand this development has caught an entire neighborhood off guard, however, let me remind you are living in a "city" a community of many different people, rich & poor advantaged and disadvantaged. If it is safety & solitude you seek, there are several 10 acre parcels in Appleton for sale.  Also, less we forget, for many years there was a maximum security prison located smack dab in the middle of Thomason with single-family homes all around.  I just returned from three days in Montreal, an international city of over a million people.  We walked everywhere and never felt uncomfortable.  I do agree with Nate & Amy that we do all need to learn how to get along with each other.  My point to Amy's comment:  " if a woman is pointing a gun to your head, perhaps it is not wise to say that she looks fat in that dress"



Posted by: Ian Emmott | Jul 05, 2019 08:18

Mr. Davis- the due process clause in both the 5th and 14th amendments run both ways, that being the neighbors who may have homes devalued as well as difficulty selling in the future. Aside from protections infringing upon life and liberty, property also has equal protection. Unfettered homes like this need some sort of review and input from the community and immediate neighbors.



Posted by: Emily Emmott | Jul 05, 2019 07:24

Mr. Carrol - local government has the last say in their city ordinances. The state of Maine may say that a single family house may consist of eight non related persons, but Rockland may, and has, further defined it as no more than four unrelated persons. This further definition can be shown by the federal government allowing states to choose whom can marry and still considering marijuana illegal, but the states individually deciding the regulations.

As a property owner and resident of Talbot Ave, it is not only the idea of the re-entry house which bothers me. It is also the way in which it was done. There was no care or respect in the purchasing of the property. There was no information given to neighbors. It was simply, we are putting an re-entry house right down the road, with no notice, and no regulations. The residences are looking for transparency through this debate, and so far, there has not been enough given to keep our minds at ease. It seems the Friendship House did just that. Alerted the neighbors before opening and were open and honest with their plans. Who will live there? What is the vetting process? We understand there will be no arsonists, no one with breaking and entering priors, no sexual predators, but what defines violent crimes? These are all questions which need to be answered before anyone would be comfortable having an ex-con living next to their children and pulling down our house values.

I believe the ordinance should not be restricting what defines a ”single family home” but rather this is a business operating in a residential zone and therefore needs to go through the permitting process. Why must short term rentals go through a permitting process more restrictive that a re-entry house? In my humble opinion, that is not right.

Though the thought of a re-entry house is commendable, we also have to examine the rate in which people in these re-entry houses find themselves back in jail. National statistics show houses like this actually have a re-matriculation rate higher than that of people who do not go through the programs. It is a small margin (about 5%) but it is still worrying.

Before I write a novel, I will conclude that the residence need more information about the house and it’s inhabitants. We need the sharing of a business plan, how individuals will be vetted, what model they will use for rehabilitation. The house will never be safe zone and we may never feel comfortable with it’s presence, but we simply ask for transparency from the owners and the council to take action and slow down the opening so more information can be disseminated.



Posted by: Gerald A Weinand | Jul 04, 2019 15:00

Mr McKusic:

 

A better example would be the Friends House in the North End. It houses men in recovery from drug addiction and is using the existing definition of “family” that is in the Zoning Ordinance. The B Zone allows single family homes as an unconditional use.

 

Mr Carroll:

 

This is where it gets a bit more complicated. State statutes allow, for zoning purposes only, that eight unrelated people can live in one domicile defined as a “single family home.” It is called a Community Living Arrangement (CLA). These CLAs are supposed to be regulated by the State, but the statutes do not specify which department or agency has jurisdiction. As the architect for the Friends House, I spent a considerable amount of time trying to determine who did, to no avail.

 

I will add that while the Friends House was in the planning stages, before the property was purchased, the head of MidCoast Recovery Coalition reaches out to neighbors, held public forums, and even an open house for anyone to tour the facility. No treatment of any kind takes place at Friends House; it is simply a safe, sober, and supportive environment to help these men get their feet on the ground and become active members of our community.

 

As far as I know, there have been no complaints regarding Friends House.



Posted by: Stephen K Carroll | Jul 04, 2019 10:45

Reading Ed glaser’s comment from last week I thought clarified the issue. If I understood him correctly, the state has it’s own definition of group housing that overrides any city ordinance that states any group housing shall be considered “a single-family “ residence. If this is true John Root is correct the debate can cease and the council can put out the next fire. Oh and Amy I have a reading suggestion for you a great book entitled “how to win friends and influence people “



Posted by: Nathan Kroms Davis | Jul 04, 2019 10:02

I am glad that Steve used the language of civil rights in his last article on this topic, because I think at its heart this is a matter of civil rights. Fundamental to the idea of civil rights in the United States is the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution, which guarantees equality to ALL people under state and local laws. This applies to rich people as well as poor people as well as ex-prisoners. Even if someone makes you uncomfortable or fearful or angry, or you don't want to live near them, or you disapprove of their living arrangements, you don't get to curtail their rights arbitrarily. Disallowing or even discouraging group homes that would be similar in community impact to four people simply living together — regardless of their history or relationship — would in my opinion be an unacceptable restriction of these rights.



Posted by: Richard McKusic, Sr. | Jul 04, 2019 09:36

Lets have the editor do a video discussion with the people behind the scenes. There has to be a board of directors overseeing this project. Bring them to the forefront, also any collaborators they may have.  Put people's mind at ease. This happened with the medical marijuana site on Main Street.  If this isn't seen as a community project it is doomed to fail.  The ex offenders' recovery will depend upon our acceptance of the fact that we have all made our mistakes. That was yesterday, now what is the next step TODAY?



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