CAMDEN, Maine — The town’s planning board heard dramatically different views Wednesday night on an amendment to the town’s zoning laws that could pave the way for a high-end alcohol rehabilitation center.
About 100 people turned out at the Camden Opera House for a public hearing. The session was extending past the three-hour mark.
The planning board is tentatively scheduled to vote Dec. 12 on whether to recommend the zone change to the Camden Select Board. The planners first met on the issue in late July.
Numerous neighbors to the proposed project voiced opposition to the zone change, saying it would add traffic to the residential area.
There were also a considerable number of people speaking out for the project, saying that the town needed an economic boost from year-round jobs.
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.
Attorney Paul Gibbons, who represents Fox Hill Estate, said that the proposal is simply to allow a rehabilitation center to be what is known as a special exception in the coastal residential zone. The town’s zoning law already allows golf courses, day care centers and nursing schools in this neighborhood, he said.
The rehab center would generate less vehicle traffic than those other uses, Gibbons said.
The proposed center would boost the town’s year-round economy, Gibbons said. Camden has considerable seasonal homes and is in need of year-round employment that this project would provide, he said.
The center is projected to employ 30 people.
Lucinda Ziesing said she was one of the largest landowners adjacent to the Fox Hill property and expressed support for the zone change. She said it would add economic vitality to the community.
Des Fitzgerald, also a neighbor, said that the proposed change was an appropriate one to consider and that the matter should be put before voters to decide.
“Opponents are sounding like that if this approved, we would suddenly wake up the next morning and find pig farms, driving ranges and miniature golf courses at our door. That doesn’t pass the straight-face test,” Fitzgerald said.
Attorney Rendle Jones, who represents neighbors opposed to the project, said, however, that the change would go against the town’s comprehensive plan. He said a legal challenge could result if the change was to go forward.
For the change to take effect, the proposal would have to go before voters for approval.
Jones said proponents of the zone change are creating an illusion that neighbors would be protected. He said this would serve the wealthy Fox Hill investors at the expense of neighbors.
Resident Parker Laite Sr. urged planners to oppose the change.
“This is spot zoning that would change the character of Camden forever,” Laite said.
Dr. Robert Merrill, who works at Pen Bay Medical Center and lives in Camden, said he too opposed the zone change, saying it smacked of spot zoning.
“They are trying to trade in on Camden’s good name,” Merrill said, which he maintained would help the enterprise at the expense of the town.
Julie Cawley, who along with her husband, former MBNA Chief Executive Officer Charles Cawley, owned Fox Hill as a single-family residence until they sold it in 2009, said she was astonished that a group of 24 investors would seek to change the residential zone for their own benefit.
Fox Hill consists of a 16,000-square-foot home on nearly 14 acres. The house was built in 1903.
Former Camden Select Board member Deb Dodge said that arguments by proponents that without this project the 110-year-old Fox Hill estate could be at risk of being torn down was simply scare tactics. She urged planners to reject the change.
Resident Dana Strout, who lives on the other end of Camden from Fox Hill, said he still objects to the change. If the Fox Hill property’s zoning is changed, he asked if a lot next to his home, near the Snow Bowl, could be changed.
Correction: An earlier version of this story reported the overwhelming majority of people who spoke were neighbors who opposed the zone change. However, this was during the first 90 minutes. After, numerous people spoke out in support of the zone change.