ROCKLAND – Rockland City Council has approved a zone change ordinance for a parcel of land off of Old County Road, effectively removing one big obstacle to a builder of elder care facilities as it continues pursue petition construction on Cranberry Isles Road despite opposition from neighbors.
That same approval, however, comes with a reminder that the zone change amendment is not the final hurdle faced by the builder, Sandy River (also referred to as Rockland Land LLC). The project still needs approval from the Rockland Planning Board and the Department of Environmental Protection.
“This is only the start of the process,” said Councilor Ed Glaser. “There’s going to be a fair amount of potential for community involvement. I would hope that the neighbors stay involved and keep an eye on this, and make sure that the project is moving in the direction that the developers say it’s going to so that everybody has a chance to weigh in. And everybody at the end of it – I’m sure it will be a better project for their involvement.”
Monday, Sept. 14, Councilors voted unanimously to amend a previous zoning ordinance that allowed such facilities with up to 30 senior housing units. The construction proposal by Sandy River is proposing units and rooms accommodating around 100 residents.
“As the population of Rockland ages, as it is clearly doing, I think not allowing this project to continue moving forward, whether it happens or not --” said Councilor Ben Dorr, “for us to say no at this point in the project would be a missed opportunity.”
Before voting on the measure in Final Reading, Council made a few amendments of their own. Those amendments approved unanimously in the meeting, are as follows:
–Side setbacks will be increased from 25 feet to 50 feet
–The upcoming traffic study is to be peer-reviewed, and the cost for that study will be reimbursed to the City by the developer (Rockland Land LLC).
–Rockland Land LLC shall provide noise mitigation of the HVAC equipment if deemed necessary by the Planning Board.
–Any blasting associated with the construction project shall occur between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Following neighbors’ disapproval at the proposal'ss mention of publicly accessible walking trails, a further amendment was to strike the words “public access” from the walking trails references. Council voted 4-1 (Councilor Valli Geiger).
Geiger told Council that she recently walked the property where the new facility is proposed.
“I can’t think of a better use, frankly, of that piece of land,” she said. “And when I think, originally, there was supposed to be many, many residential houses there, I think you will find this will be a much quieter and better neighbor.”
She also drove to Brunswick and looked at a similarly constructed Sandy River facility.
“The one in Brunswick is beautiful,” she said. “It looks residential. It’s built in such a way, with some pods going out, that it doesn’t look like some huge monolith building at all….Because it’s one story, I think the only people who may see it [the Rockland facility] are the Barbours. Certainly no one on Old County Road is going to see it.”
Neighbor Susan Barbour, however, expressed a different view point.
“My husband and I are not in favor of you coming into our neighborhood and ruining our neighborhood,” she said. “Here we have one of the biggest commercial developments in the city being put in the middle of an A zone surrounded by a double A zone. I thought zoning was for protection of the neighbors, but apparently it’s more about the money.”
Barbour also expressed concerns regarding her private driveway being used as the entrance to the facility, and also regarding the proximity of the facility to her own abutting land.
“You’ve only got a 25-foot setback next to the property. That’s for the building. Then you want to put a walking path. That means, it could be like a foot from our property. I just don’t think that that is correct.”
Why not build at Pen Bay Medical Center?
The Pen Bay campus, according to President Mark Fourre, is already being built upon, with a brand new office building soon to open. The rest of the developable land is being reserved for Pen Bay-only facilities. Though the hospital plans to transfer their residents and some staff to the new Sandy River nursing care and assisted living facility, the hospital will not own or manage the new building.
Fourre has been in favor of the new establishment all along, yet stated a new urgency due to the pandemic. Adequate staffing is a recent challenge for the Knox Center.
“As you can imagine, it is very difficult to recruit people in when there is a possibility that we would receive a really challenging environment should a COVID-positive patient end up at the Knox Center,” he said.
According to Fourre, modernized features of the new facility would decrease the likelihood of transmission among patients and staff.
A new facility in terms of taxes:
According to City Manager Tom Luttrell, taking the estimated $15 million valuation of the project and applying it to this year’s budget would have saved 47 cents on the mil rate.
“I thought it was important to bring up so that everybody can understand that development in Rockland is necessary to lower our mil rate,” he said.
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