GORHAM — Treading lightly, the Town Council Monday opened talks about researching the potential of regulating sober houses and similar types of group homes not subject to state law.
This week’s workshop discussion followed recent public awareness of a plan for a re-entry program for released prisoners, some who may be also recovering from substance abuse disorders, at a house in Gorham Village. The Town Council’s discussion Monday could serve as a retroactive date for a moratorium ordinance to take affect, if the board approved one in the future.
“It’s a sensitive issue,” Town Manager Ephrem Paraschak said. “We don’t want to focus on one group.”
Town Council Vice Chairwoman Suzanne Phillips suggested Monday taking time to gather more information. A public hearing and possible action on the matter might be on the Town Council agenda in June.
The town has not drafted anything yet.
“I would favor us reviewing this in a timely fashion,” Town Councilor James Hager said.
Monday’s discussion centered on conducting research.
Town staff will gather information from other communities and Paraschak said the Town Council will meet this month with lawyers.
In an April memorandum to Paraschak, town attorney Mark A. Bower said federal law extends housing protections to people recovering from substance use disorders, both living in and out of group homes.
In addition, Maine law says that community living arrangements “must be treated as a single-family home for purposes of zoning” and are not subject to special permits or licenses, he said.
According to Jackie Farwell, a spokesperson for the state Department of Health and Human Services, DHHS, the agency doesn’t license sober houses.
The town doesn’t officially know the number of group homes in Gorham as they have been treated as single-family residences. “Several of these facilities already exist in Gorham,” Fire Chief Robert Lefebvre said Tuesday.
In recent years, Lefebvre said there have been three arson fires at group homes in Gorham and another in Buxton.
A former off-campus college fraternity house at 24 School St. was recently re-sold and a new tenant has announced plans to operate a re-entry home there called Courage House. It will house up to 15 former prisoners on probation along with a live-in manager beginning in June.
Lefebvre said the property has been used as a rooming house and the town’s rescue personnel had been previously called there “off and on.” He declined to disclose the nature of those calls.
Lefebvre said the house has a sprinkler system. It was inspected two years ago and it met requirements for a rooming house.
As a fraternity house, it was scene of a student standoff with police in January 2014. The incident evacuated downtown restaurants, closed streets and led to an arrest.
Before that, brass knuckles and knives were seized by police in an early morning brawl with about 40 people outside the fraternity following a party in December 2008. Six police officers broke up the melee. Three men, who were uninvited guests at a party and were not USM students, were arrested.
It’s unclear whether Town Council action could impact any existing facilities.
In Monday’s meeting, Paraschak cautioned town councilors to take another 30 days before considering action. He doesn’t want the town put in a position to be challenged in court.
The workshop was attended by a number of village residents and Town Council Chairman Benjamin Hartwell called it a great turnout. “We don’t usually get this many people” (at a workshop), Hartwell said.