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BRUNSWICK — The Town Council on Monday put Tedford Housing’s plans for a new shelter on hold.
Councilors unanimously passed an emergency moratorium that prohibits the creation of new homeless shelters and set a public hearing for April 17 to allow the moratorium to be adopted on a regular basis.
The decision came after town staff determined portions of Tedford’s proposed new shelter would not be allowed under the current zoning ordinance in any part of town.
Also on Monday, councilors decided to keep Brunswick Junior High School as the town’s polling place. They rejected a proposal from Town Clerk Fran Smith to move voting to the Parks & Recreation Center at Brunswick Landing.
Town Manager John Eldridge also announced the hiring of Assistant Town Manager Ryan Leighton, who began work March 30.
Although Tedford has not submitted a formal application, pre-application conversations had begun with town staff regarding the organization’s plan to replace its two current shelters with one new shelter.
The new shelter is proposed to double the number of beds offered at the agency’s two aging emergency shelters, and would be at the corner of Baribeau Drive and Pleasant Hill Road. According to Tedford officials, the agency now has room for only 20 percent of people who ask for help.
Eldridge said Monday that after discussing the proposal with Tedford, reviewing the town ordinance, and consulting the town’s attorney, it became apparent a part of the new building would not in compliance with zoning.
“Considering that we have facilities that Tedford owns and operates already in town, it was a bit surprising,” Eldridge said. “But nonetheless the fact remains that under the existing ordinance there is no definition that we felt the proposal could be in any zone.”
Eldridge added as a result, town staff thought “the most prudent thing” to do would be to call a “legal time out” to allow formation of a committee representing all stakeholders to get back to the council with a “comprehensive, well-thought-out” amendment to the zoning ordinance.
He said the town notified Tedford March 15.
Eldridge said the most obvious concern with Tedford’s plan, which triggered issues with the town’s ordinance, was the proposal to have one-night, dormitory style rooms for temporary stays on the building’s first floor.
When asked by Councilor Stephen Walker whether the size of the building also violates Brunswick’s ordinance, Eldridge said because the facility does not fall under permitted use, staff did not discuss the building’s size.
Town attorney Kristin Collins said the emergency ordinance, which will last 50 days, and will not affect the operation of either of Tedford’s existing shelters. Following the public hearing April 17, the town will decide whether to proceed with a six-month, or 180-day, moratorium.
Collins said the temporary, dormitory-style rooms would be problematic because there would be no specific dwelling units assigned to people, and no length of stay, and the facility would not fall under the ordinance’s definitions of assisted living or congregate housing.
Eldridge said the new committee will study ordinances in other municipalities that have specific language and performance standards for shelters. He said town staff had already examined laws in Portland, Waterville and Augusta.
Councilor Jane Millett asked Eldridge how, with “all the time, energy and money” put into drafting the zoning ordinance, staff could have overlooked shelters.
“I think it’s a fair question,” Eldridge said. “I don’t know whether there was consideration that it might be considered some other type of use that might fit.”
Jim Bridge, spokesman for the 62 Pleasant Hill Coalition, a neighborhood group comprising abutters of the area where the building is proposed, expressed support for the moratorium.
“What we’d like to see is a holistic approach towards Brunswick’s homeless and others in need of emergency and transitory shelters,” Bridge said. “It’s critical to ensure that we get the best solution for them.”
Tedford board member Kevin Bunker said the agency went through a “very deliberative process” to choose the site for the building, and does not want the process of developing the project to be adversarial.
Even if the moratorium did not pass, Bunker added, the March 15 letter from the town “put the breaks on” the project from Tedford’s perspective.
“We’re not private developers, we’re not super capitalized,” Bunker said. “We’re not in the business of forcing a shelter into a community that’s the same community we’re going to go to for support to actually build the shelter.”
On Tuesday, the Planning Board also discussed the emergency ordinance.
Chairman Charles Frizzle, who sat on the Zoning Ordinance Rewrite Committee when the new ordinance was being drafted, took responsibility for the oversight, though he said the topic of shelters was never raised during the rewrite process.
“It was never raised by anyone, in four years of discussing a new ordinance. It was not defined previously in the old ordinance either,” Frizzle said. “So I apologize for that and offer to do whatever I can do to expedite the process, and we can get this defined and perhaps some suggestions for town council with respect to where we think it can be appropriately located.”
Planner Jared Woolston also provided policy from the American Planning Association on homelessness to board members, and said the Planning Board should be examining the document “from a zoning context.”
The board expects to have workshops on the new Tedford facility at future meetings.
Councilors voted 5-4 to keep election polls at Brunswick Junior High School.
Smith said she proposed a move to Brunswick Landing based on concerns she’d heard from the school’s principal and resource officer about student safety, as well as limited parking at the junior high.
The vote came after the proposal was tabled twice previously to give the School Board time to discuss the issue.
At its March 22 meeting, the School Board voted to close schools to students during November elections, beginning this year.
Councilors David Watson, Suzan Wilson, Christopher Watkinson and Alison Harris were in favor of the move; Councilors Stephen Walker, Jane Millett, James Mason, Kathy Wilson and Chairman John Perrault were opposed.
Harris said she felt “quite strongly” that voting at the junior high is an “unsafe situation” due to an inability to secure the school during voting. She added congested traffic at the site is also dangerous.
Those opposed to the move said the change would be made on too short notice for the upcoming June primary election, and could reduce voter turnout overall because of Brunswick Landing’s less central location.
“I think all of this needs to be made in the context of, ‘Does this make voting easier?'” Councilor James Mason said.
The Brunswick Town Council voted 5-4 April 2 to keep the town’s polling place at Brunswick Junior High School, rejecting a proposal from Town Clerk Fran Smith to move it to the Parks & Recreation center at Brunswick Landing.