AUGUSTA – City councilors unanimously voted to change the zoning rules in the area surrounding MaineGeneral’s cancer center and hospital in north Augusta to allow a vacant house to be turned into a free home away from home for patients and their families.

Councilors voted Thursday to include medical guest houses as an allowed use in the medical district zone surrounding MaineGeneral’s Alfond Center for Cancer Care and MaineGeneral Medical Center.

The council approved the change without debate. No members of the public commented.

Councilors, as part of the vote, adopted a definition of a medical guest house, as allowed in the medical district, as: “A facility 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.”

The house is owned by Brian Gillis, an Oakland proctologist who said he came up with the idea while driving by the farmhouse at 410 Old Belgrade Road and thinking it would be a great location for patients at the hospital and cancer center — across the street — to stay and easily access medical care nearby.

A private group was formed, which proposed converting the house into the Farmhouse of Hope to the council. The residence will be for patients from outside the immediate area, or their families, to stay while the patient is getting treatment at either the hospital or cancer center.

Some members of the council were initially wary of the zoning change when the residence was first proposed, afraid it would open the door for other types of group homes. But last month, councilors were told that such homes are looked at differently under federal fair housing law.

At the first reading of the change Jan. 17, councilors indicated they would pass it.

Patients and their families can stay in one of the house’s four guest rooms for free. The cost of running and maintaining the home would be covered by fundraising and donations.

Guests would be limited to people at least 18 years old who live at least 30 miles away from Augusta, with some exceptions. They would need a referral from a doctor, nurse care manager, social worker or hospital administrator.

Shelley O’Connell, who’d serve as executive director of the residence, said there is a need for such a home in the area. She said there are such residences in Bangor and Portland, but not Augusta.

MaineGeneral’s regional hospital, which combines Augusta and Waterville hospitals, opened in November.

Keith Edwards – 621-5647 kedwards@centralmaine.com