January 14

Augusta to consider temporary free housing for seriously ill

City Council will consider a zoning change on Thursday to allow a Ronald McDonald-type house near the new MaineGeneral Medical Center and Alfond Center for Cancer Care.

By Keith Edwards kedwards@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — A zoning change is needed for a proposed “hospital hospitality house” for cancer patients or others being treated at the new regional hospital to comply with city codes.

click image to enlarge

NEW PROPOSAL: A home at 410 Old Belgrade Road is shown in a photo taken Tuesday in Augusta. City councilors may make a zoning change to accommodate an anticipated proposal to create a hospitality house where families of patients, or patients themselves, could stay while getting treatment at the new MaineGeneral Medical Center or adjacent Alfond Center for Cancer Care.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

Boarding house defined

Proposed definition of medical boarding house: “A rooming house exclusively used by patients and their families visiting Augusta to access services at the Alfond Center for Health and the Alfond Center for Cancer Care.”

The informal proposal would create a nonprofit residence similar to Ronald McDonald houses, where the families of seriously ill patients stay and which are generally near hospitals. Shelley O’Connell, who would be the executive director of the proposed Farmhouse of Hope, seeks to convert the house at 410 Old Belgrade Road, near the entrance to the cancer center, into a boarding house where patients or their families could stay temporarily for free while getting treatment.

“The population clearly exists to create a hospitality home that will provide comfort and lodging at no cost for patients receiving outpatient therapy,” O’Connell wrote in a proposal to the city. “It is not uncommon for patients to drive up to 50 miles one way for treatment. Undergoing cancer treatment is emotionally, physically, and financially draining — both for the patient and caregiver.”

Hospitals in the Bangor and Portland regions have similar hospitality homes, O’Connell wrote, so the Farmhouse of Hope would be a place “where patients and their caregivers can lean on each other for the emotional support needed in a time of crisis.”

City councilors are scheduled to vote on a first reading of two required on the proposal to add medical boarding house as an allowed use in the medical district at their meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday in council chambers at Augusta City Center.

The house’s proximity to the Alfond Center for Cancer Care and MaineGeneral Medical Center is key, O’Connell and city officials noted.

According to city assessing records, 410 Old Belgrade Road is owned by Pensco Trust Company LLC. Brian Gillis, an Oakland proctologist, is listed as a representative of the firm. Gillis could not be reached for comment.

The city’s zoning allows such a use in nearly every zone, except the zone where the residence is proposed to be built. Boarding houses, medical or otherwise, aren’t an allowed use in the relatively new medical district, which surrounds the hospital and cancer center campus in north Augusta.

City councilors were supportive of the idea when Development Director Matt Nazar brought it up last week, but they were concerned that opening the district up to medical boarding houses could have the unintended consequence of also allowing group homes for forensic patients committed to Riverview Psychiatric Center after being found not criminally responsible for violent crimes.

Such groups homes elsewhere in the city, such as one on Glenridge Drive, have spurred safety concerns from nearby residents.

“Could it open that up so somebody else could go into that area and setup a forensic group home facility, similar to what’s on Glenridge Drive?” said Councilor Jeffrey Bilodeau, who said he supports allowing medical boarding houses near the hospital and cancer center. “That can stifle economic growth in that area, if someone sees an opportunity to do something similar to that.”

Nazar said opening a group home for forensic patients is not O’Connell’s intent. Nazar said O’Connell only wants to convert a house into a medical boarding house.

The Planning Board voted unanimously in favor of adding the use to the medical district in November.

Councilors directed Nazar to look into the possible unintended consequence of the change and potential ways to avoid it, and report back to them.

City Manager William Bridgeo warned federal law requires group homes to be considered single-family homes in zoning, so any effort to specifically ban them from a district could trigger federal enforcement action of fair housing laws.

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