Matt Panfil (from left) , director of planning and development; John Perreault, chairman, and John Eldridge, town manager discuss zoning for homeless shelters Thursday night. (Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record)

BRUNSWICK — After several hours of back-and-forth debate over proposed rules and regulations surrounding homeless shelters, the town council decided it needs a third workshop to help draft a zoning ordinance for shelters in Brunswick.

Councilor Steve Walker cautioned against over-regulating a growing need in the community.

“We keep squeezing and squeezing and squeezing down” where the shelters can go and how they can operate, he said. “These are human beings … We have real human needs out there.”

Tedford Housing officials first approached the town a year ago with the intent of building a new shelter and resource center to meet the growing needs of the area’s homeless population, but town officials soon realized that Brunswick was not properly zoned for homeless shelters, despite Tedford’s presence in Brunswick for decades

Months later, a zoning proposal has gone from the shelter task force created to help draft the ordinance, to the town council, to public hearings and then to the planning board, which after three workshops narrowly moved forward an amended set of recommendations earlier last month. After two workshops, the town council has yet to come to a consensus over what the final ordinance should look like.

After a great deal of push back from residents at previous meetings, the town council voted 5-2 to prohibit barracks or dormitory-style homeless shelters in any residential districts in the ordinance. However, Perreault noted after the meeting that at this point, when there is still so much work to be done, it was merely a “straw poll” and no changes have been made to the proposed ordinance or the planning board’s recommendations.

Councilor Jane Millett, who often voiced concerns over a shelter in residential areas, said they needed to respect the voices of residents living and raising their children in town who hope to protect the character and safety of their neighborhoods.

The council also spent considerable time Thursday on a set of several performance standards that were initially included by the shelter task force but ultimately removed by the planning board. The performance standards included requirements to submit an emergency response plan, a policy for regular building and site maintenance, rules of conduct and “turn away policy,” among others. These aren’t areas that typically come under the planning board’s purview.

Tedford currently operates with a set of “best practices” from Maine Housing Authority, but some were concerned that not all operators who may eventually come into the area will be as experienced as Tedford.

Chairman John Perreault suggested they could also choose to accept the planning board’s zoning recommendations and then build the best practices into something separate, such as a licensing ordinance. Shelters in Maine are not licensed, according to Craig Phillips, executive director of Tedford Housing.

This is an important issue, Councilor David Watson said, not just for the neighborhoods in Brunswick, but for the homeless people as well.

Millett proposed adding a requirement that the shelter stay open all day, as Tedford’s singles shelter is currently closed during the day. Councilor Kathy Wilson added that she would only support such an addition, in order to be fair and kind to homeless people, especially during the winter.

According to Phillips, the shelter closes during the day in part to “encourage (shelter residents) to do something productive during the day.” Right now, for many, the means either going to the library or The Gathering Place, Brunswick’s day shelter. 

However, Wilson stressed again that they are zoning for all shelters, not just Tedford, and that not all future shelters may be in the same location to be able to utilize services like the Gathering Place.

Any recommendations are, at this point, still just suggestions for staff to continue work on, Perreault said.

Among other considerations, the next workshop will discuss the performance standards, the possibility of restricting shelters to one per zone or a potential cap on the number of beds, whether per shelter (within existing density restrictions) or overall in the town of Brunswick.

Any new zoning ordinance will not affect Tedford’s current emergency housing units on Federal and Cumberland streets as those facilities are grandfathered in.

After the next workshop, the town will schedule a public hearing before approving an ordinance.

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