CAMDEN, Maine — A controversial high-end alcohol treatment center proposed for a Camden neighborhood is an allowed residential use under federal laws, the town attorney has concluded.
Town attorney William Kelly issued his opinion in a Feb. 28 letter to Town Manager Patricia Finnigan.
Fox Hill Real Estate and McLean Hospital two weeks ago announced that they were scaling back the alcohol treatment center planned for Bay View Street from 12 beds to eight beds. Attorneys for the developers contend that the federal Fair Housing Act considers any treatment center with eight or fewer beds to be classified as a residential use and thus does not require zoning change approval from the town.
Fox Hill had originally sought to amend the town’s rural residential zone to allow the treatment center, but the Camden Select Board last month voted 3-2 against placing the proposed change on the municipal ballot. After that defeat, the developers regrouped and decided to forge ahead with the fewer beds.
“It appears at this time that FHRE (Fox Hill Real Estate), with its planned eight beds, will be residential in nature as opposed to an out-patient facility,” the letter from the town attorney states. “If it is licensed by the state for the proposed use by recovering substance abusers, who are deemed to be handicapped for the purposes of the Fair Housing Act, then it appears likely to me that it will quality as a CLA (community living arrangement), and therefore appears to fall within the protections of (state law) and the Fair Housing Act as an allowed residential (single family) use,” Kelly concluded.
Fox Hill’s developers acknowledged they will need to obtain a building permit for renovations from the town as any single-family home upgrade would require. The project also will need a license from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and approval from the Maine state fire marshal.
The issue had divided residents and drew as many as 100 residents at each of several public hearings held last year and earlier this year by the planning board and select board.
Opponents of the project said that a zone change would harm the Bay View Street neighborhood and undermine zoning throughout the town. The developers said the revised project will avoid the need to make any zoning change.
At a Tuesday meeting of the Camden Select Board, neighbor David Hague of Chestnut Street voiced concern about the ruling. Hague said Fox Hill was stretching the Americans with Disabilities Act by making it applicable to high-end rehab centers.
“If this goes unchallenged, it will mean essentially that any house in Maine could become a for-pay rehab center. Camden obviously is very attractive to them. We could be overrun with rehab centers,” he said.
Deborah Dodge of Camden, who is a spokeswoman for a coalition of residents who opposed the Fox Hill project because of its impact on residential neighborhoods, agreed that the developer’s “new tactic opens up every neighborhood in every community in Maine to commercial-scale treatment facilities under the guise of community living arrangements. We have no issue with people in recovery, or any other disabled class living together as a single family. It still is about zoning.”
Calling a substance abuse treatment center a community living arrangement is comparing apples and oranges, she said
Select Board member Donald White Jr. said it appears that federal and state laws preempt municipal concerns but told residents they could seek private legal advice on the matter.
Board member John French Jr. said it was time to move on and welcome McLean. He said his opposition to the matter previously was the change to the zoning.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the town’s attorney. He is William Kelly.