NEW GLOUCESTER — A near-capacity crowd filled the New Gloucester Meetinghouse Wednesday night for a more than two-hour meeting that yielded plenty of public comment, but no definitive answer from the Board of Appeals on a proposed youth substance abuse treatment facility.
Non-profit organization Day One has proposed a 12-bed residential treatment facility for young men ages 14-20 at 934 Intervale Road, and several residents have appealed a determination from town Code Enforcement Officer Debra Parks Larrivee that the proposal is an approved use subject to site review by the Planning Board.
The Planning Board was initially set to hold a public hearing on the project March 6, but voted to postpone the hearing while the appeals process is underway.
The four members of the New Gloucester Zoning Board of Appeals in attendance for the April 4 public hearing voted unanimously to reconvene next Tuesday, April 10.
Chairman Ray Hamilton told the crowd of approximately 50 people at the onset of the meeting that the board has 30 days to make a decision on the appeals that were filed.
Day One is a South Portland-based organization that provides substance abuse treatment and prevention services to Maine youth. The organization is hoping to move a current treatment facility in Hollis to the New Gloucester location, which it has already purchased.
In a Feb. 28 memo, Parks Larrivee issued a determination that the proposed residential treatment facility is an approved use within the town’s rural residential district and is subject to site plan review by the Planning Board.
Wednesday night, Parks Larrivee said that a total of three appeals had been filed in response to her determination.
One of those appeals came from Michael Rawlings-Sekunda, who said Wednesday night that he lives near the proposed Day One location and spent 33 years working in the child welfare field.
Rawlings-Sekunda raised various concerns about the Day One proposal, including what he said was a history of Day One residents running away from facilities.
He emphasized that his objections were “fundamentally not about the kids in Day One’s programs.”
He spoke emotionally about his past work with youth in recovery and said that “kids with drug and alcohol issues deserve to get the best help they need to become fully-functioning adults.”
“I loved those kids fiercely, as you can tell,” Rawlings-Sekunda told the board. “My appeal to the board is based solely on my contention that there are more appropriate zones in New Gloucester in which to place a substance abuse residential facility than within a rural residential zone, and appealed the CEO’s decision because permitted uses within a rural residential zone do not extend to the type of facility that we’re discussing tonight.”
Eric Ritter of Intervale Road raised similar concerns about the zoning ordinance language in outlining his appeal.
“Our argument in this appeal is only a question of use designation by the Code Enforcement Officer,” Ritter said. “We are not here, and we do not intend to call into question, our town’s readiness to help kids in need.”
Lawyer Thaddeus Day also represented his clients — New Gloucester residents Gail Kolda, Scott Kolda and Alexander Runyon — and made similar arguments about the ordinance language while also speculating about the backgrounds of the young men who would be staying at the Day One facility.
In an interview last week, Day described the potential clients as “troubled youths” who “put a lot of worry into the neighbors that surround this proposed site.”
Day One lawyer Thomas Schoening did most of the talking on behalf of the organization Wednesday night.
“We’re not here tonight because Day One wants to fight against the residents of New Gloucester,” Schoening said.
Schoening argued that the Day One proposal is “reasonably similar” to other permitted uses outlined in the zoning ordinance for the rural residential zone, including residential care facilities and community living arrangements.
“I recognize that considered in their best light, these concerns about safety and impacts on police are really rooted in the residents care for the well being and best interests of the community,” Shoening said. “But at the same time, those concerns about safety and police, they’re also rooted in fear, stigma, NIMBYism and discrimination against boys with substance use disorders and mental and emotional diagnoses.”
His comment appeared to irk several members of the audience, generating a few murmurs from the crowd and at least one direct response during public comment.
“If this town feels that’s not a reasonable interpretation, does that mean that we’re discriminatory?” resident Dennis Beedy asked about the town hypothetically disagreeing with Day One’s position. “That’s kind of a scare term.”
Resident Laura Fralich, who said she works with youth similar to Day One’s clients, read a joint letter she wrote with her husband Adam Gilman in support of the code enforcement officer’s determination.
“With the growing opioid epidemic in Maine, we need to find as many ways as possible to combat this disease and move towards healing and recovery,” Fralich said.
Fralich also warned that if the board of appeals overturned the code enforcement officer, it could open the town up to a discrimination lawsuit.
Larry Zuckerman, a former New Gloucester resident now living in Gray who also used to serve on the Planning Board, noted that he sold the Intervale Road property to Day One and was surprised that the organization didn’t make the sale contingent on approval of the project.
“I fully understand the emotions of both sides,” Zuckerman told the board. “Your job is narrow in scope … and I appreciate the leniency you’ve given everybody to express their feelings about this.”
Wednesday night’s meeting was long, occasionally tense, but mostly civil — especially given the strong and divergent feelings in the audience. It also was not without a moment or two of levity, particularly when Hamilton asked if there were any more public comments.
“My wife won’t let me,” one man joked, eliciting laughter.
Toward the end of public comment, another man identified himself as a neighbor to the 934 Intervale property without providing his name.
He described the project as “a shock” and said that the Intervale Road location “doesn’t quite seem like the best site selection” while also acknowledging the general need for treatment services.
“If it has to be, I’ll be a good neighbor,” he said. “We’ll always be good neighbors to whoever’s around.”
New Gloucester resident Michael Rawlings-Sekunda, at the podium, filed one of three appeals related to Day One’s proposed youth residential treatment facility on Intervale Road.