A Camden woman is planning to turn a home on Talbot Avenue in Rockland into a transitional living home for recently released inmates. Credit: Lauren Abbate

ROCKLAND, Maine — What started as a conversation about how city officials could regulate a prisoner re-entry and recovery home in a residential neighborhood has morphed into a complicated discussion about how single-family homes should be defined in city ordinances.

The Rockland City Council has been considering an ordinance amendment that would seek to regulate group homes — like the proposed re-entry home on Talbot Avenue — by further clarifying what a single-family home means.

But the divergence of the ordinance amendment form the original intent of easing the concerns of Talbot Avenue residents is giving city officials pause.

“This is bad law right here,” City Councilor Ben Dorr said at a July 24 workshop on the ordinance amendment. “This, I do not think, is the answer.”

Under the city’s current residential zoning code, as long as a home has no more than four unrelated individuals, it can be considered a single-family home and therefore would not need a conditional use permit from the city’s planning board.

But that definition upset residents of Talbot Avenue when they learned that a home for recently released inmates was taking shape on their street and needed no city approval or permit because only four individuals would be living there.

Earlier this month, the Rockland Zoning Board of Appeals upheld the decision of Code Enforcement Officer John Root that the re-entry home did not need planning board approval.

In response to what she has described as a “loophole” in the city’s zoning ordinances, City Councilor Vallie Geiger proposed an ordinance amendment that would further clarify what a single-family home meant.

Under the proposed change, in order for four unrelated individuals to live in a home that would be classified as a single-family dwelling, the individuals must share “the entire house” as well as live and cook together along with sharing expenses for “food, rent, utilities or other household expenses.”

A number of Rockland residents have expressed concern about unintended consequences that could arise if city officials try to define what a “family” living arrangement means.

Geiger has admitted that the ordinance is not perfect but was instead a “stopgap” measure intended to begin a discussion of group homes.

The City Council gave initial approval to the ordinance amendment earlier this month, and it is scheduled for a final vote Aug. 12. However, Geiger and other councilors have said more work needs to be done on this issue before an ordinance amendment can be passed.

“We don’t want to shut down recovery houses, but this is a new type of housing use we have not seen before,” Geiger said in an email Tuesday. “I think it should require a permit that is reviewed annually with required neighborhood engagement, but that needs to be discussed, and other councilors may not see the need.”

City Councilor Amelia Magjik also expressed concern July 24 about the ordinance amendment as written.

“I feel like we are trapped in a sticky web,” Magjik said. “It’s snowballing in a way I am not comfortable with.”

Additionally, the attorney representing Freedom Path LLC and Kathryn Matlack — the organization and woman behind the re-entry home on Talbot Avenue — has said that the ordinance would violate federal laws by making it difficult for individuals with substance use disorder to find housing.

Initially, the Talbot Avenue home — called Unity House — was described by Matlack as being for recently released inmates and not individuals with severe substance use disorders. However, Matlack and her attorney, John Branson, have recently said the house will be both a re-entry home for inmates as well as a recovery residence for individuals struggling with addiction.

“Unity House will provide residential housing to men in recovery from substance use disorders, with a particular focus on persons re-entering the community after spending time in a correctional facility,” Branson wrote in a July 22 letter to Rockland officials. “Unity House seeks to create an environment within which its residents may live sober, healthy and productive lives.”

In his letter, Branson claimed that the ordinance amendment as written would “constitute as unlawful discrimination” under the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

At last week’s workshop, Rockland city attorney Mary Costigan said that if the amendment went forward “there could and would very well be a challenge to that based on the fact that the individuals using that house are in a protected class.”

Costigan worked with city officials to draft the ordinance amendment, which was written prior to Freedom Path LLC disclosing that individuals with substance use disorder would be residing at the home.

“I think it’s a good idea to take a step back,” Costigan said. “This opportunity allows the council to put further clarity into the ordinance.”

Geiger said that she anticipates that the ordinance amendment will be defeated at the Aug. 12 meeting.

“We will start fresh,” Geiger said.