CAMDEN — After listening for three hours to more public and professional commentary on the merits or pitfalls of a proposed ordinance amendment enabling the Fox Hill alcohol treatment center, the Camden Planning Board agreed to schedule another meeting for its own internal conversation and final vote on the matter. That meeting will take place Jan. 2, 5 p.m., at the Camden Opera House.
The Dec. 12 public hearing held at the Camden Opera House drew approximately 100 citizens, municipal board members, lawyers and a few consultants to add their thoughts to the substantial public record now enveloping a controversial project proposal. The meeting began at 5 p.m. and just before 8 p.m., Planning Board Acting Chairman Lowrie Sargent polled the room for last comments before asking board members if they wanted to begin what he estimated might be a 90-minute discussion — at least — among the five of them.
“I wouldn’t mind deciding tonight,” said board member Kim Tuttle, then adding that she would defer to others.
Sitting next to Tuttle, board member Jan McKinnon said she preferred scheduling the deliberations for another time, a sentiment that was followed suit by the rest of the board.
“In that case, I think we should do it another night,” said Sargent.
On Jan. 2, the agenda specifies: “The sole purpose of this continued public hearing is to allow the Planning Board to deliberate the merits of the presented arguments regarding the proposed ordinance amendment language that seeks to include alcohol and substance abuse treatment facilities as an allowed special exception within the Coastal Residential Zoning District. The board may, in its discretion, reopen the hearing for the purpose of asking specific questions or clarification of previous testimony. Otherwise, there will be no additional public comment at this hearing.”
The Planning Board is considering a proposed amendment that would, if approved by Camden voters, expand the town’s Coastal Residential zone parameters to allow special exceptions for “residential treatment facilities for comprehensive alcohol and related substance abuse disorders providing concurrent treatment for addiction and/or other associated psychiatric disorders.”
It is an amendment proposed by Fox Hill Real Estate LLC, working in conjunction with McLean Hospital, of Massachusetts, to establish a high-end alcohol and drug rehabilitation center that would serve 8 to 12 clients over a given period at the Fox Hill estate on Bay View Street.
The Planning Board’s task has been to evaluate the language of the proposed ordinance amendment, determine if it is in conflict with the town’s comprehensive plan, and decide whether to move it forward to the Select Board.
If they do send it to the Select Board, they are supporting that the voters should have a say in whether the amendment fits the zones.
At the Dec. 12 hearing, however, Camden attorney Rendle Jones, who represents opponents Leonard and Madlyn Abremson, urged the Planning Board that, “if for some reason you feel compelled to forward this issue to the Select Board, I encourage you to forward it with the recommendation that it not be recommended to the voters for adoption.”
If the amendment eventually does appear before Camden voters, and the town approves, the doors are then open for the Fox Hill project proponents to apply for a special exception from the Camden Zoning Board of Appeals. If the ZBA says yes, then proponents are then able to submit a site plan review application to the Planning Board. It is only the result of that second process that determines whether Fox Hill is allowed to become a treatment center.
And then, even if the Planning Board approves the project, it may not be over. Opponents may appeal the ZBA’s decision to Knox County Superior Court. And if the ZBA upholds the Planning Board decision, opponents could take the issue to the Knox County Superior Court, and possibly on to the state’s highest court, the Law Court. The same process holds for the project proponents, if their site plan application is denied.
Proponents say such a rehab center, along with its association with the highly-regarded McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School, will benefit the local economy with the creation of jobs, and spin-off business. They also say that the focus on wellness and opportunities derived from McLean’s presence in the community will help the region’s addiction, drug and alcohol problems.
Opponents have said the Fox Hill center would be nothing more than an scheme from which the 24 investors of Fox Hill Real Estate would gain profit. They have told Planning Board members that there are the first line of defense against the scheme and that it is their responsibility to protect the town. They argue that the amendment is spot zoning, and cite the integrity of the town’s comprehensive plan.
Those themes continued through the Dec. 12 public hearing, the last night the Planning Board would entertain comments from the public and expert testimony. By the end of the meeting, the board had a few questions.
“What would be worst-case scenario, if McLean moves out,” asked Tuttle.
Fox Hill Attorney Paul Gibbons said that the amendment was written so that it is “very careful about defining an operator.”
Such an operator would have to “be approved by the Joint Commission, and that is not easy to to do.”
The Joint Commission accredits and certifies more than 20,000 health care organizations and programs in the United States.
Philip Levendusky, of McLean Hospital, said: We’re not doing this as a temporary activity. When we start programs, we continue them. I can’t think of any potential suitor that would meet requirements that are in the ordinance language. It’s a very, very high bar.”
Board member John Scholz said: “We’ve had several businesses come to town that have said they are going to stay. Things change and they have since left town. Even with best intentions, things could change. I’m not impugning your integrity to stay. I am trying to allay my concerns. What if this is proved and the place is empty again?”
Levendusky: “If we close, it will be because we are not successful. Which means no one else is going to be successful. It doesn’t take away the residential capacity of the property. If we moved out, they’ve got an empty property and assume they are going to develop it as a residential property.”
Tom Rodman, one of the primary project proponents and one of the 24 investors, said: “I have no interest in being a partner with any other medical institution than McLean. If doesn’t work with McLean it doesn’t work. It’s over.”
Fox Hill project
Project proponents want to turn the 13.8-acre Fox Hill estate at 235 Bay View Street into a high-end residential alcohol and substance abuse treatment facility for up to 12 clients at a time, each paying approximately $60,000 for four to five weeks of treatment.
Owners of the estate, Fox Hill Real Estate LLC (24 investors, including Lincolnville summer resident Tom Rodman and Rockport summer resident Merril Halpern), hope to team up with the Massachusetts-based McLean Hospital to establish the facility in the former Borden Cottage that sits on a hill overlooking Penobscot Bay.
Rodman has said the other 22 investors are family and friends; “no Wall Street sharks,” he said.
Other investors who have been named include Bob Campbell, of Rockport; Betty and Scott Harris, of N.H.; and George Rodman, of Maryland.
Philip Levendusky, associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and senior vice president for business development and marketing, as well as director of the psychology department at McLean Hospital, is representing the nonprofit that would operate the facility.
The business deal between the for-profit Fox Hill Real Estate LLC and the nonprofit McLean Hospital, which would lease the property, is contingent on local zoning and site plan approval, as well as state regulatory approval.
The first step is for the planning board to vote to send the proposed amendment on to the Camden Select Board for its consideration. The Select Board is the body that ultimately decides whether to put the amendment on the ballot.
The amendment would adjust the town’s coastal residential parameters to allow special exceptions for “residential treatment facilities for comprehensive alcohol and related substance abuse disorders providing concurrent treatment for addiction and/or other associated psychiatric disorders.”
If approved by voters, the project proponents would then need to submit an application for a site plan review by the planning board. It is only the result of that second process that determines whether Fox Hill is allowed to become a treatment center.
And then there is an appeals process, as well, which could send any application approval to the town’s zoning board of appeals.
The Planning Board has been reviewing and making suggestions on language in the proposed amendment since Fox Hill Real Estate LLC approached the town at the end of July.
At the Dec. 12 meeting, Attorney Jones also clarified statements made concerning potential lawsuits encountered by the town should the amendment be effected.
“Like Cliff, we’ve heard comments in community that we are threatening, or my client is threatening, litigation. We are not doing that. The litigation I talk about is a concern about whether or not once the door is open to this type of activity in this zone whether it truly can be limited to this one activity.”
Dec. 12 public hearing comments ranged from continued emphasis on opposing spot zoning, or contract zoning. Some raised concerns about traffic on Bay View Street, as well as noise and expense to the town.
Some memorable quotes were delivered, such as:
An appeal to the board to “Defend our neighborhood streets, defend property owners who invest in our towns.”
“ Zoning for a specific company is a bad zoning. Zoning for tenant is worse.”
“It’s the camel getting its nose under the tent, that’s what concerns me. The ordinance is designed to fail from day one.”
It is not a pro or anti-business decision or about biz attributes or the benefits of rehab centers. It has nothing to do with McLean or Harvard. It places commercial enterprises right in the middle of our residential zones. It’s about zoning and the future of our residential areas.”
I guess this is all my fault,” said former Fox Hill owner Julie Cawley. “We wouldn’t be here if Fox Hill wasn’t so attractive.... We desperately need to rely on you the board to have the moral courage to protect our neighbors who have proven to be valuable stewards of this town.”
“The language of the special exception consititutes spot zoning,” said real estate broker Terry Sortwell. “It is clearly dsigned to achieve the goals of Fox Hill. This is not the appropriate manner to make revisions to zoning ordinance. It sets dangerous precedent and undermines integrity of zoning ordinance.”
Given the complexity of the ordinance language amendment, to let the voters decide, “would be akin to understanding the Affordable Health Care Act.”
“I see younger couples. Clearly they are somehow working. They are not starving. I see them in restaurants and markets. The economy is seeing signs of life.”
“Camden is in danger of being only one kind of place. We benefit from affordable housing and dealing with different sorts of needs in our community.”
“This ordinance amendment is consistent with 2005 comp plan.”
“Many people have perceived we are for this proposal because we are investors,” said Lucinda Zeising. “I want to make clear to town and you that we have no financial connections. I Believe it is best thing for the neighborhood. For eight years we lived with a lot of disruption and noise. If this does not go through, very likely this property will be developed. That brings more housing, more noise, more summer people.”
“The proposed zoning does not discriminate against disabilities. By amending ordinance, the town does not invite other litigation from federal acts, it inoculates itself, while preserving character of coastal resiendial district.”
“While Camden is beautiful, it is also freezing. I have never had a family ask me if there is a facility in Maine.”
“This is not a wolf in sheep’s clothing. We know their intentions.”
“I am keenly aware of flora and fauna of neighborhood,” said neighbor Frederick Goggins. Fox Hill is “the best use to preserve that unique character.”
“The seasonality has gotten worse in Camden and the population has not gotten any younger,” said Jane Monhart. Camden is filled with “souvenir stores and nursing homes for our elders. This fine. But would be nice to have more opportunities for our young people.” In Camden in the winter it is best to “phone ahead to make sure the place is open if you want to go out to eat.”
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