Locals want to see the shuttered Island Nursing Home reopen. But to do so, they say more affordable housing is needed to get and retain staff. A sign for the facility is seen in this 2020 file photo. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

If there are to be any hopes of reviving the now-closed Island Nursing Home, residents from around the region say the community needs to solve the housing crunch in Deer Isle and its neighboring towns.

After a 40-year run serving the area, the Deer Isle nursing home announced in August that it would be closing, blindsiding the community and leaving a hole in available services for older residents.

Following a groundswell of support for reopening the nursing home, the Island Nursing Home Task Force formed in September and includes area residents, former members of the nursing home board, a clinical social worker, a retired hospital administrator, affordable housing advocates and Ronda Dodge, the president of the nursing home board.

Since the closure announcement, the task force has met nine times and has been assessing the nursing home’s housing needs, the community’s existing housing stock and year round rentals, state and local zoning and potential workforce housing opportunities.

But the lack of housing has made things tough. The nursing home had between 26 and 28 people decline job offers because they could not find housing in the area, according to Dodge.

Deer Isle, Stonington, Brooklin and Blue Hill are among several Hancock County towns that all rank as some of the least affordable places to live in Maine. Nearly 84 percent of households in Stonington are unable to afford an island median priced home of $375,000, according to 2019 data from the Maine State Housing Authority. Deer Isle sat at 53 percent, Brooklin at nearly 76 percent and Sedgewick and Brooksville were both above 60 percent.

“Affordable housing really is the keystone for our future success,” said state Rep. Genevieve McDonald, D-Stonington, at a Monday night task force meeting. “We can certainly work diligently to find staff, bring in staff, train staff, educate staff, but if there’s nowhere for them to live, we don’t have any future sustainability.”

Any reopening would likely come in stages and would depend on some sort of commitment from local landlords to rent homes at affordable rates for two or three years while longer-term affordable housing measures are taken, said Sam Harrington, the chairman of the task force.

“The community must come together with long-term commitments of money, time, real estate housing and other forms of support,” he said.

If the community is to save the nursing home, it needs to move quickly, but zoning changes could be a challenge, task force members told meeting attendees. The community almost entirely defaults to state zoning and is poised to start work on a comprehensive plan that would be needed to justify changes, said town manager James Fisher.

After the plan is created, the island would then move forward with its zoning — but that is still years away.

“The timeline for a comprehensive plan is probably one to two years and then changing the zoning would come after that,” Fisher said. “So I don’t think there’s much legally we can do in the short run.”

The community would also likely need to figure out how to get property owners to switch from lucrative and largely unregulated vacation rentals that have become prominent in the area to year round rentals.  

In addition to the housing hurdles, the task force has been evaluating the current and future financial viability of the nursing home and options for affiliating with regional partners. It also met with international staff recruitment agencies.

When asked if there is an alternative plan in case the nursing home is unable to open, McDonald and other task force members said they are focusing on reopening and if that doesn’t work out, they would have time to consider other options.

But the nursing home’s current license has also been voluntarily suspended, a Maine Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson said. If the facility is not reopened before the license expires, the nursing home would need to reapply for a new license, which would be a major obstacle, Dodge said.

To avoid a similar out-of-the-blue nursing home closure in the future, Sen. Louis Luchini, D-Hancock, said he was working on a bill with the Maine Hospital Association that would increase transparency and notice requirements for nursing homes that wanted to close their doors.

While the task force continues to formulate recommendations for the nursing home’s board, the latter of which will make the final decision on whether to reopen or not, McDonald is looking to the community for help and ideas.

“We are specifically interested in people who may be interested in offering their properties as year round rentals,” she said. “Or even if it’s not year round, we still want to hear from you or if you have any leads or ideas.”