Rockland board upholds code office ruling on reentry house

By Stephen Betts | Jul 17, 2019
Photo by: Stephen Betts Kathryn Matlack, right, answers questions Wednesday evening from attorney Kristin Collins, left, who represents neighbors to the proposed Unity House on Talbot Avenue in Rockland. Pictured next to Matlack is her attorney, John Branson.

Rockland — The Rockland Zoning Board of Appeals unanimously voted Wednesday night, July 17, to uphold the code enforcement officer's stance that a proposed reentry house for former prisoners on Talbot Avenue does not require city review.

The board voted 5-0 that the Unity House at 215 Talbot Ave. met the definition of a single-family dwelling, and thus was allowed in the residential zone and did not need a review by the Planning Board.

Attorney Kristin Collins, who represents the neighbors challenging Code Officer John Root's interpretation, said after the vote that she had not talked with her clients on whether an appeal would be filed in the state court.

The neighbors have 45 days (until Aug. 31) to file a court appeal.

The Zoning Board members agreed that the Unity House was not a business, and that the city did not have the right to ask who would be staying there.

Kathryn Matlack of Camden purchased 215 Talbot Ave. June 3 through Freedom Path LLC, which she created to provide housing and services for up to three recently released prisoners at a time.

Matlack attended the meeting and answered questions from Collins, the Zoning Board and her own attorney, John Branson.

Matlack said Unity House would be a recovery house for people who have substance abuse disorders. She said the residents may not necessarily be former prisoners, but those would be the likely tenants.

The tenants would pay $600 per month.

An unpaid house manager would live at the house, she said. She did not name who the house manager will be, but said it is someone who has an outside job as a case manager.

Code Officer John Root defended his decision, saying Unity House meets the definition of a single-family dwelling. "I do not need to know anything about the tenants," Root said.

Root challenged the argument that Unity House was a business because the people who will stay there are paying rent. He said many people own homes and rent them in order to make money.

Root pointed out he would have 25 years of experience if he were to stay on the job until next March, but added that he would not be here then. He has submitted his resignation with no end date.

Root pointed out that he, City Manager Tom Luttrell, Mayor Lisa Westkaemper, and state Rep. Pinny Beebe-Center met with Matlack in December 2018 to talk about her plan to establish a sober house in the north end of the city.

The code officer said he next met with Matlack June 5, after she had bought the Talbot Avenue house.

Neighbors spoke about their concerns regarding the house, but other city residents voiced support for the project.

Becca Shaw Glaser said we live in a country with extreme class disparity.

"In this country, incarceration is  deeply linked with class position and poverty. Most people under the watch of prison and jail come from poorer backgrounds. So where people get to live is fundamentally about class. When the neighbors talk about this house not being in keeping with the 'character of the neighborhood,' a lot of this is a question of class, which is a question of mobility, access, freedom," she said.

"I find it extremely sad the nitpicking and bedroom-snooping that seems to be going on when considering a small household of four men, three of whom deserve to live anywhere and everywhere," Shaw Glaser said.

There could be an additional challenge to the project.

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 reentry house.

The proposal would change the definition of the words "family" and "lodging, rooming or boarding houses," which could require Unity House to be reviewed by the city.

The City Council has scheduled a workshop to go over the proposed ordinance at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 24.

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

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

Comments (8)
Posted by: Kathryn Fogg | Jul 19, 2019 14:11

My own comments were not to do with the home approved by the code officer of which I have no problem.  My interest was in the decision made by the Zoning Board of Appeals that it was not a business.  I wondered how this comment might affect other decisions concerning short and long term rentals which also provide lodging to people.

Posted by: William Eustis | Jul 19, 2019 12:44

I think that we could use more housing for recovering addicts and alcoholics.  It is a huge issue and needs to be addressed for sure.  Sometimes that is all it takes to get your life back on track is to have someone there that is willing to help and support you.  Good on you  Kathryn Matlack for stepping up and helping those in need.  We need more people in this community.  Also good on you John Root for being such a great part of this community for all these years.  Shame on the rest of you that seem to just need to have something to complain about all. the. time.  We need more people like Kathryn Matlack in this community trying to help people and better the community and less of the rest of you that just want to be cranky and complain about everything.

Posted by: Debra Damon | Jul 19, 2019 09:16

They are paying Rent, which those of us who do not own a home would do. Is it a business to rent, yes, but Kathryn will be a Landlord like many Landlords in the area. Do you go to each of the other rentals and make problems too? Are these men and women being judged before they even get out of jail? Wouldn't that be called Discrimination?  You all have something to say about the drugs in this community and now Kathryn Matlack want's to help these men or women transition back into the community you all want to complain. These men and women are chosen because they want to change their lives, but yet "neighbors who might complain about the drug problem in our community" don't want to give them a chance. Amy Files you are right that they are renters, and hopefully having a place to come to when they leave Jail or Prison, will help them start a new life.  I commend Kathryn Matlack in what she is doing? What is so hard for everyone to accept? I see the same people comment on things like this every week and it's always negative no matter which way the ball rolls. 
You all know Drug Addiction is a big problem in the State of Maine and almost every state in the United States! We as a community have to start some where to help stop the problem, and help the Addict or Alcoholic and this would be one step would by giving these people a place to live. Could you say it's a business, yes but do you go to every Landlord who has a Rental house in Rockland or surrounding areas and start asking who is moving in? I should hope not. And No Dale a person managing a house does not have to get paid wages, they usually have a place to live without paying rent.  Time for some of you to grow up and look at the changes that need to be made to help Addicts, Alcoholics, and Homeless people. I see 3 people on this Post that comment on something the City or a business does all the time, why don't you all do your own job and work and mind your business, espeically if you can't say anything positive on your posts. Mr. Root has worked for the City for almost 25 years and now the 3 of you want to shame and humiliate him before he leaves, shame on you all. You people don't look out for the good of the community you only look out for yourself!! If you don't want to help change things then stay home and mind your own business! This all irritates me to no end. Everyone deserves a chance to change, to start their life over and be able to say Thank You to the ones helping them. We've seen enough people die from overdoses and it's time as Adults to help, we need positive people in our community to start helping. I'm sure I'll get negative feedback from the same ones that bark about what's going on.

Posted by: Kathryn Fogg | Jul 18, 2019 13:08

Amy, so are you suggesting that home owners who share their homes with short term renters should not be considered businesses as some would propose?  Or should be considered businesses?  You seem to put an argument for this both ways.

Posted by: Amy Files | Jul 18, 2019 10:12

Kathryn Fogg : the tenants living in this home will pay rent like any other tenant in the city; the tenants will be living in this home a minimum of 6 months; this is no different than any other property owner renting to monthly tenants. The difference between that and short-term rentals is that this home will provide much needed housing to residents who live here, not visitors or tourists. When the owner resides in the same unit as a short-term rental -- it is still their home and they are renting a room in order for them to be able to reside in their home. When investors purchase up properties solely for short-term rentals they remove homes and much needed units from the market -- units that could have otherwise provided housing to residents here. And they rent those units to people who are not residents or a part of our community -- thus providing a service to outside customers/clients, making it a business use that is not "residential" (if we apply the term residential to housing provided for residents).

Posted by: Stephen K Carroll | Jul 18, 2019 09:05

The City council continues to "Micro-manage" the city from their lofty podiums.  I sat at a meeting the other night and listened to a presentation by an outside consulting firm hired by the city to give advice to the council re: lot sizes and setbacks.  Isn't that what the comps review board does along with the planning board and code office ?  Now because of the interference of council members our code officer (with 25 years experience) is now leaving just as his decision is verified by a 5-0 vote of the planning board.  It is not necessary for the Rockland city council to do everyone's job....just theirs.

Posted by: Kathryn Fogg | Jul 18, 2019 01:04

If payments by occupants for their stay does not make the place a business, how does that compare to home owners who rent their homes as short and long term rentals?  Some would claim that the latter are businesses.  What are the differences when the owner resides in the same building, sometimes in the same unit?

Posted by: Dale Hayward | Jul 17, 2019 23:39

Another question: How can a person be a house manager for no pay? I thought it was illegal to work for nothing? Just curious. Even trading home for pay requires a "wage" does it not?

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