BRUNSWICK — As Brunswick’s Shelter Task Force continues to iron out definitions and rules surrounding homeless shelters in the town’s zoning, another winter is fast approaching.

Tedford Housing is left in a holding pattern until the town decides on its new rules, according to Executive Director Craig Phillips.

“The existing facility will have to work as best it can,” Phillips said.

Nearly nine months ago, Tedford Housing announced plans for a new homeless shelter and resource center on Baribeau Drive and Pleasant Hill Road that could help find temporary housing for the hundreds of displaced families and individuals the agency has to turn away each year. However, Brunswick town officials realized zoning ordinances don’t define homeless shelters and, as it stands, they are not permitted. 

Despite that fact, Tedford has been operating in Brunswick for decades. Any new zoning ordinance will not affect Tedford’s current emergency housing units on Federal and Cumberland streets as the those facilities are grandfathered.

“Everybody is talking about this in context to Tedford,” said James Mason, the task force chairman. “There’s a lot of talking about the organization, but all we’re dealing with is the dry issues of how to rewrite a zoning code.”

However, Mason added that, when it comes to homelessness in the community, it becomes “anything but a dry issue.”

At Monday night’s town council meeting, several community members spoke to the merits or drawbacks of the shelter itself.  

One woman voiced concern over whether Brunswick can afford to be the regional shelter for the Midcoast. “If we build it, they will come,” she said.

Phil Studwell, president of the Gathering Place, a daytime drop-in center, on the other hand, spoke in favor of the new shelter’s potential to draw homeless or struggling people to the area.

“We’re a beacon,” Studwell said, “let’s stay that way.”

Councilor Kathy Wilson said the task at hand was to figure out the zoning for shelters, not whether Tedford is a good neighbor in the community. Whatever they come up with, she said, would probably stay in place for 15 or 20 years and could potentially include rehabilitation facilities, halfway houses and more, which is why they are trying to iron out the details now.

The Task Force presented recommendations to the Town Council Monday night, but due to the amount of information, they elected to plan a joint workshop with the Planning Board. They have not set a date for that meeting.

Some of the main points according to Mason, were to define shelters as apartment style, non-apartment style and resource center. They recommended making homeless shelters available as a permitted use with a conditional use permit, ensuring that all applications will go before the Planning Board rather than being decided by staff. There was a concern that this might give the impression that homeless people were not welcome in Brunswick, Mason said, potentially perpetuating the stigma of the homeless as “other.”

“These are our neighbors,” he said.

The task force also is weighing how many beds a shelter should be allowed to have, but instead of instituting a maximum, the task force suggested four residents per dwelling unit and “applying that number to each zoning district to determine density.”

According to Mason, this meant that some zones only allowed for 10 beds while others allowed for 200. Because of this variance, there was no consensus on whether those sizes were too large or too small, and Mason said it seemed a largely political decision.

The not-yet-scheduled workshop will hopefully address some of these disagreements, Mason said, although there is always the possibility that the planning board could look at their recommendations and still go in another direction. In the best case scenario, he said, they would be able to get the zoning worked out within three to four months.

Phillips said Tedford Housing was encouraged by the town’s awareness of the “significant need” of Brunswick’s homeless and housing insecure population. This process has made many in the community aware of the extent of the issue, as the “juncture of housing issues and zoning can create complexities” that can lead to productive conversations.

The recommendations made by the Task Force were a “good starting point” Phillips said, and “hopefully a good finish line too.”

UPDATE: The Town Council will hold a workshop on Thursday, Oct. 25, at 6:30 p.m. in the Council Chambers of the Town Hall at 85 Union Street to discuss, along with the Planning Board, over definitions and recommendations by the Shelter Task Force. Information gathered by the Task Force can be viewed here.

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