CAMDEN, Maine — Opponents clearly outnumbered supporters Thursday night at a public hearing held by the Camden Planning Board for a change to zoning law that would allow a high-end private residential alcohol treatment clinic to open at the Fox Hill estate.
The turnout for the meeting was so large that the town fire chief contacted the town planner during the meeting to inform him that the capacity of the room was being exceeded. The planning board acknowledged the warning and continued with the meeting.
Resident Donald Abbott of Bay View Street said that the neighborhood where the clinic is proposed is a wonderful one where people walk and speak to each other.
“To breach the zoning would be a travesty,” Abbott said.
Resident Parker Laite echoed those comments, saying that if the zoning is changed to accommodate the treatment center, other properties could seek such a special exception.
“We’re getting on a slippery slope,” Laite said.
Fox Hill Real Estate, LLC filed a request with the town in July for an amendment to the town’s zoning ordinance to allow the Fox Hill property at 235 Bay View St. to be used for the clinic. Fox Hill would lease the property to MacLean Hospital, the largest psychiatric affiliate of Harvard Medical School. MacLean would then operate a 12-bed inpatient alcohol rehab center where patients would spend a month on treatment.
Representatives from MacLean sought to assure residents that the project would not disrupt the neighborhood or community. Two former town officials from Princeton, Mass., spoke to residents about their initial concerns when MacLean proposed a similar facility in their community and how they have not had any problems in the seven years it has been operating.
James LaChance, who served on the planning board when MacLean submitted its proposal in Princeton, said the board and residents were concerned about traffic and depressed property values if the rehab center were to gain approval. He said none of those issues materialized after it was approved and opened in the rural central Massachusetts town.
Former Princeton selectman Alan Sentkowski said that MacLean has been a great neighbor. He said the facility has been a positive addition to the community and has not been a burden to the town of 3,400’s police, fire or ambulance service.
The Fox Hill clinic would pay property taxes. The center in Princeton is tax exempt, however the facility has agreed to pay an annual service fee in lieu of taxes.
Those assurances, however, did not satisfy most of the people who spoke Thursday night in Camden.
Felicity Ferrell said she did not want helicopters flying on to the property to disrupt the neighborhood. She also said that traffic would be an issue for the small, winding road on which the estate is located.
“This is the most beautiful part of Camden. I think it would be an absolute crime to change the zoning for any reason,” Ferrell said. “It would make these people feel insecure. It will drive down property values and have the rest us who do not live on the fancy estates on the water end up paying more in taxes.”
David Hague, whose property abuts Fox Hill, said the for-profit operation would not address substance abuse problems for local residents. He called the proposal a way for an outside group to make a profit by taking advantage of the beauty of the residential neighborhood.
Charles Cawley, the former chief executive officer of MBNA and a former owner for 22 years of the Fox Hill property when it was a private residence, said he was somewhat neutral on the proposal. But he did have concerns.
“I think it will be a significant change to the character of the town and over time will change the town a lot,” Cawley said.
Joseph Fay of Lily Pond Drive voiced concerns about safety for children and the added traffic that the facility would create.
David Walck of Lincolnville disputed that claim, however, saying that the amount of traffic generated from the rehab center would be less than the previous uses of Fox Hill.
The center is expected to employ about 25 to 27 people, although MacLean officials said that people would work in shifts and there would not be that many staff at the facility at one time. Patients would not be allowed to have vehicles, so they would not contribute to traffic problems, MacLean officials said.
Walck said the town would benefit from the quality jobs and the projected $1.25 million in annual payroll pumped into the town.
Judy Emery of Hope, who said she runs a business in town, said she would welcome the addition of a company that would employ people year-round.
Resident Franklin Walker of Chestnut Street said he bought his property knowing what the zoning was and that zoning should offer protection and certainty. He said putting a large commercial entity in the middle of a residential zone would harm property values.
Walker urged the Camden Planning Board to cut off the project early.
Planning Board Acting Chairman Lowrie Sargent said that Thursday night’s hearing was the first of two formal public hearings for the board to consider whether to recommend the zoning amendment go to the town select board. The planning board will next discuss the issue at its Sept. 19 meeting but that session will simply be to go over the wording of the proposed amendment.
The board plans to visit the Fox Hill property at 3 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 18, for a site walk.
If the board does recommend the zoning proposal, it would go to the Select Board which would also hold two public hearings before deciding whether to place it before voters at a referendum. Sargent stressed that voters would have the final say before it could be approved.
The Fox Hill complex includes a main house that is 16,000 square feet on 14 acres.