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BRUNSWICK — Nearly a month after the town extended a moratorium on homeless shelters, officials took a step toward finalizing new zoning laws that will allow shelters to operate legally.
The Town Council and Planning Board held a workshop Oct. 25 to discuss recommendations from the Shelter Task Force for the zoning ordinance presented on Oct. 1.
The panels also discussed areas where they disagreed, including the definition of a shelter, the size of shelters, and whether to limit them to a particular part of town.
The discussion was prompted in part by a Tedford Housing proposal in July 2017 for a new homeless shelter that would combine two existing facilities.
However, after Tedford decided to build at Pleasant Hill Road and Baribeau Drive, town officials realized that because current zoning laws do not define what a shelter is – although Tedford has operated several facilities in town since 1987 – its current emergency facilities were not permitted because of the lack of definitions.
According to Chairman James Mason, there are three main recommendations for the definition of a shelter the Shelter Task Force unanimously developed, including apartment-style, non-apartment-style and resource center-style.
Each definition explicitly states the facilities are to help people in temporary situations.
More importantly, Mason said, the community needs to provide a place where people aren’t just getting a bed, but are obtaining assistance with things like employment, affordable housing and other resources.
“It is providing them the support structure so that people from our town and the people from our community who have been displaced from their housing can get to a place where they are not displaced from housing anymore,” he said.
“These are our community members, these (people) are us, not other.”
Additionally, the task force recommended making homeless shelters available as permitted with a conditional use permit, to ensure that all applications will go before the Planning Board for review.
The ordinances proposed by the Shelter Task Force permit Tedford’s existing emergency housing units on Federal and Cumberland streets.
The task force also suggested what the size of shelter facilities should be, and agreed on four residents per unit while “applying that number to each zoning district to determine density,” meaning certain neighborhoods could have more or fewer people per unit.
The new facility proposed by Tedford would almost double the number of beds at the current facility, proposing to add 12 family units on the first floor and 30 single units on the second.
During the meeting, councilors emphasized that ironing out these zoning issues had nothing to do with whether Tedford should be in the community, but town officials need to agree upon rules and regulations for new shelters, including the size of the facilities.
But until there is a decision, Tedford’s proposal to build an expanded shelter is on hold. Which means, more people will be turned away from temporary shelter.
So far this year, Tedford has turned away 354 individuals and 228 families, according to the agency’s website.
Councilor Jane Millett said she and other town officials are concerned that roughly a third of the people served by or turned away from Tedford are not from Brunswick, which shows that homelessness is a regional issue and not just a Brunswick issue.
But, Millett said, she does support Tedford’s current model of separating adult and family facilities.
During public comment, residents spoke for and against the regulations suggested by the Shelter Task Force.
Lynn Holland said she was concerned about the size of a new homeless shelter because “if surrounding towns don’t offer the same types of services to homeless people, the town of Brunswick could be left assisting people who might not be from the town or the state.”
She said she is concerned Brunswick could end up becoming “the regional shelter.”
Craig Phillips, Tedford executive director, said he agrees with some of the recommendations by the task force, but wants “further clarification” on others.
“We believe that the task force’s report has set an appropriate tone for the next phase of work,” Phillips said.
Councilor John Perrault reiterated there would be additional opportunities for public comment in upcoming council meetings, including on Nov. 5.
The Shelter Task Force recommendations are available at http://brunswickme.org/shelter-task-force.