AUGUSTA — City councilors said they support a proposal to turn a vacant house near the new MaineGeneral Medical Center and cancer center into a home away from home for patients and their families while undergoing treatment.

The proposal to turn the former single-family home at 410 Old Belgrade Road into a “hospitality house,” where patients and families can stay for free, needs a zoning change that underwent the first of two required readings Thursday night.

The council was also told fears that allowing the use would open the door for group homes may be moot, because such homes are looked at differently under federal fair housing law.

A medical boarding house is not an allowed use in the relatively new medical district, which surrounds the cancer center and adjacent MaineGeneral Medical Center.

Adding medical boarding, or hospitality houses, in the medical district zone was unanimously recommended by the Planning Board earlier this week. Councilors, while not voting Thursday, expressed support for the proposal Thursday.

The hospitality house in Augusta would be called Farmhouse of Hope, according to Shelley O’Connell, who said in a letter to the city she was acting as executive director of Farmhouse of Hope.

The proposed definition of medical boarding house is a “rooming house exclusively used by patients and their families visiting Augusta to access services at the Alfond Center for Health and the Alfond Center for Cancer Care.” Stephen Langsdorf, city attorney, will review the language before councilors take a final vote on the proposal, likely at their next business meeting.

The city’s zoning allows such a use in nearly every zone except the medical district, which surrounds the hospital and cancer center campus in north Augusta.

While supportive of the idea, some councilors said they are 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 — patients who are committed to the hospital after being found not criminally responsible for violent crimes. Such group homes elsewhere in the city, such as one on Glenridge Drive, have spurred safety concerns from nearby residents.

City Manager William Bridgeo said Thursday night federal fair housing law requires group homes to be treated, in zoning rules, as if they were single family homes, so the city may not be able to prevent one from being created in the medical district, regardless of whether it changes zoning rules to allow medical boarding houses.

“I think you’ll find now group homes could go into that area, and after you do this, a group home could go in there,” Bridgeo said.

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.

Reached before the meeting, Gillis, who said he’s treated a number of people with cancer, said he came up with the idea when he drove by the parcel, which is on a hill across the street from the cancer center.

“I think it’s a great location,” Gillis said, adding it’s ideal for patients getting treatment at MaineGeneral, so they are their families can be close to the hospital and cancer center.

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.

Keith Edwards – 621-5647

kedwards@centralmaine.com