AUGUSTA — A proposal to create a memorial to the nearly 12,000 people who died while they were patients at the former Augusta Mental Health Institute will move forward.

Augusta city councilors reacted favorably to a proposal from the leader of an effort to make sure those who died at AMHI, many of whom were never claimed by their families and were buried in unmarked graves scattered around the city’s many cemeteries, are not forgotten.

Peter Driscoll, a member of the Cemetery Project Committee, met with councilors Thursday to request city permission to install a monument, bought with donated private money, to the 11,647 people who died while patients at AMHI over its 165 years of operation. The monument would be placed in city-owned Cony Cemetery, which is across Hospital Street from the AMHI grounds, is now the state government east side campus.

Mayor Mark O’Brien said he and councilors are supportive of the proposal, and it will be put on the council’s Oct. 16 business meeting agenda for approval.

Driscoll, who is also executive director of Amistad, a Portland-based nonprofit group that serves people with mental illness, said the group raised $15,000 in private contributions to pay for the monument. All they’re seeking from the city is construction of a path to the cemetery from a state parking lot nearby, and permission to place the monument in the cemetery.

“I think I speak for all council members (who were at Thursday’s meeting), they’re supportive of moving ahead with it,” O’Brien said, Friday, about the proposal and councilors’ reaction to it.

The small cemetery is the final resting place of about 45 AMHI patients. Most of their graves were marked initially with wooden markers that have long since disappeared, according to Driscoll. They make up only a small portion of those who died at AMHI, according to research conducted after the group was told by a former DHHS commissioner only a few patients died while at AMHI.

“We suspect that the majority of patients were buried in pauper’s graves scattered in Augusta,” Driscoll said. “We do know that a portion of Cony Cemetery … does contain a number of patient graves. We’d like to do something to honor those folks, at least.”

Driscoll said group members put so much effort into the project, since they started it in 2000, because it is important to recognize the lives of people have value and meaning. And they feel many of the people who died at AMHI and were placed in unmarked graves didn’t get the respect they deserved upon their deaths.

The proposed inscription on the monument reads, in part, “You are not forgotten. The citizens of Maine have created this memorial to remember these lost ones, and to serve as a reminder that all lives have value and dignity.”

AMHI closed in 2004, when Riverview Psychiatric Center opened on adjacent property.

The group also has secured a commitment from state officials, Driscoll said, that when the Stone building, a former AMHI building, is redeveloped, the budget for the redevelopment will include money for a permanent memorial there dedicated to those who died while patients at AMHI.

In the meantime, the group wants the memorial in place early next summer.

Councilors Thursday were also receptive to a proposed zoning change which would add small distilleries, breweries and bakeries as allowed uses in some zones in the city, a change recommended by the Planning Board.

City Manager William Bridgeo said the city’s land use ordinance doesn’t include any of those uses as allowed uses so, technically, they aren’t allowed in the city, although the city has had multiple bakeries.

Bridgeo said the proposal to add those uses was prompted by a proposal from a Litchfield resident, Rob Coates, who would like to have a small, less than 5,000-square-foot bourbon distillery on property he owns on North Belfast Avenue.

The proposal before councilors, however, was not to approve a distillery but, rather, only to approve the zoning change that would allow such a business to be proposed in the city.

The ordinance change would require two council votes, and the first, Bridgeo said, will be scheduled for the Oct. 2 council business meeting.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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