AUGUSTA — A zoning change is needed for a proposed “hospital hospitality house” for cancer patients or others being treated at the new regional hospital to comply with city codes.
The informal proposal would create a nonprofit residence similar to Ronald McDonald houses, where the families of seriously ill patients stay and which are generally near hospitals. Shelley O’Connell, who would be the executive director of the proposed Farmhouse of Hope, seeks to convert the house at 410 Old Belgrade Road, near the entrance to the cancer center, into a boarding house where patients or their families could stay temporarily for free while getting treatment.
“The population clearly exists to create a hospitality home that will provide comfort and lodging at no cost for patients receiving outpatient therapy,” O’Connell wrote in a proposal to the city. “It is not uncommon for patients to drive up to 50 miles one way for treatment. Undergoing cancer treatment is emotionally, physically, and financially draining — both for the patient and caregiver.”
Hospitals in the Bangor and Portland regions have similar hospitality homes, O’Connell wrote, so the Farmhouse of Hope would be a place “where patients and their caregivers can lean on each other for the emotional support needed in a time of crisis.”
City councilors are scheduled to vote on a first reading of two required on the proposal to add medical boarding house as an allowed use in the medical district at their meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday in council chambers at Augusta City Center.
The house’s proximity to the Alfond Center for Cancer Care and MaineGeneral Medical Center is key, O’Connell and city officials noted.
According to city assessing records, 410 Old Belgrade Road is owned by Pensco Trust Company LLC. Brian Gillis, an Oakland proctologist, is listed as a representative of the firm. Gillis could not be reached for comment.
The city’s zoning allows such a use in nearly every zone, except the zone where the residence is proposed to be built. Boarding houses, medical or otherwise, aren’t an allowed use in the relatively new medical district, which surrounds the hospital and cancer center campus in north Augusta.
City councilors were supportive of the idea when Development Director Matt Nazar brought it up last week, but they were concerned that opening the district up to medical boarding houses could have the unintended consequence of also allowing group homes for forensic patients committed to Riverview Psychiatric Center after being found not criminally responsible for violent crimes.
Such groups homes elsewhere in the city, such as one on Glenridge Drive, have spurred safety concerns from nearby residents.
“Could it open that up so somebody else could go into that area and setup a forensic group home facility, similar to what’s on Glenridge Drive?” said Councilor Jeffrey Bilodeau, who said he supports allowing medical boarding houses near the hospital and cancer center. “That can stifle economic growth in that area, if someone sees an opportunity to do something similar to that.”
Nazar said opening a group home for forensic patients is not O’Connell’s intent. Nazar said O’Connell only wants to convert a house into a medical boarding house.
The Planning Board voted unanimously in favor of adding the use to the medical district in November.
Councilors directed Nazar to look into the possible unintended consequence of the change and potential ways to avoid it, and report back to them.
City Manager William Bridgeo warned federal law requires group homes to be considered single-family homes in zoning, so any effort to specifically ban them from a district could trigger federal enforcement action of fair housing laws.
Councilor Patrick Paradis, Ward 3, said establishing a medical boarding home where patients and families who can’t afford a hotel could stay for free is “fantastic and would fill a great need, to have something so close to the new hospital where patients and families could go back and forth to the hospital,” but was concerned the change would unwanted development in the medical district, which officials created a few years ago to encourage development of medical-related offices and other related businesses around the hospital.
“I share the concerns of other members of this council. I’d want to go slow,” Paradis said.
O’Connell, in her letter to the city, said guests at the Farmhouse of Hope would need a referral from a doctor or other medical professional. Guests could stay for a day or two, or longer, depending on their need, length of treatment, and availability of rooms at the now four-bedroom home. Guests would be limited to people at least 18 years old who live at least 30 miles from Augusta, with exceptions granted in some cases.
Once registered, those staying there could come and go as they please. She said services would be provided “by a dedicated, enthusiastic, and passionate group of volunteers, along with the medical director and executive director.”
A medical director would be on call 24 hours a day to work with MaineGeneral staff and help answer questions from guests about their medical needs. It would be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, according to O’Connell.
Also Thursday, councilors are scheduled to:
â€¢ Meet in two closed-door sessions, one to discuss a personnel matter, the other to discuss real estate negotiations;
â€¢ Recognize newly retired fire department Battalion Chief Dan Guimond;
â€¢ Hear a presentation from Shawn Moody of Moody’s Auto Collision Center;
â€¢ Consider accepting two Maine Bureau of Highway Safety Grants, each for $10,000, for speed and impaired driving enforcement and;
â€¢ Consider allowing the city to act as the fiscal agent to receive $24,000 in grant funds on behalf of the Worromontogus Lake Association to hire an engineer to study and design a fishway at Togus Pond to help reestablish alewife runs in the pond.
Keith Edwards — 621-5647 [email protected]