AUGUSTA — The Zoning Board of Appeals during a hearing Wednesday overturned a decision by the city’s Code Enforcement Office to deny the application for a building permit for a homeless veterans’ house for women on Summer Street.

Attorney Mary Denison, representing the Betsy Ann Ross House of Hope, argued that the definition of a rooming house didn’t match the proposed use of the Betsy Ann Ross House of Hope at 8 Summer St. in Augusta.

“I’m very happy with the decision,” said Denison, of Lake & Denison LLP in Winthrop.

Code Enforcement Officer Robert Overton deemed the Betsy Ann Ross House of Hope a “rooming house,” which is not permitted under the land use ordinance for the medium-density district where the house is located.

“I saw that it was a facility with seven rooms maintained for individuals,” Overton said during the hearing, which lasted about 75 minutes. “It’s available to a subset of the public and not for private use.”

The ordinance defines a rooming house as a structure where “three or more rooms are kept, used, maintained, advertised or held out to the public” for transient or permanent guests or tenants “for compensation.”

Denison said that because the organization is a registered non-profit and the women who live in the house will not pay the Betsy Ann Ross organization, it can’t be called a rooming house.

“We don’t fit that definition because we aren’t open to the public,” Denison said. “This is a very specific private use for this residence.”

The attorney said that the house can’t be considered available to the public because of the uniqueness of the prospective residents. In order to be eligible for the housing, a woman must be a homeless veteran, which disqualifies more than 99.9 percent of Maine’s population.

House of Hope Executive Director Martha Everatt St. Pierre, who had more than 20 supporters including several veterans in attendance, said the city presented the option to apply to be classified as a group home, which is allowed in that district, but in order to do so, the property would have to be licensed as a mental health facility, which she said wouldn’t be fair to the women who’d be living there.

“The majority of these women are not mentally ill, so why give them another label if we don’t have to,” St. Pierre said last month. St. Pierre said she’s been taking calls from women looking for a place to stay but has had to turn them away because she didn’t know when the house would be open.

St. Pierre said she was confident at the beginning of the hearing but thought it might be a split vote. She was obviously happy with the outcome and plans on picking up the building permit Thursday morning.

“We’ll be full steam ahead with getting the house ready,” St. Pierre said. “My hope is to have a grand opening on Veterans Day in November, but we still need about $57,000 in funding.”

After the two sides presented their cases, Augusta city attorney Steve Langsdorf admitted that the language in the ordinance wasn’t perfect, but he did think a rooming house was the closest defined use.

Two of the four members of the zoning board stated right away during deliberations that they were in favor of the appellant in part because of the city’s definition of uses in the ordinance.

“It’s incumbent upon the city to make the ordinance clear, but this is a vague situation,” Andy Dunlap said.

After hearing more from Langsdorf and city official Matt Nazar, the board voted unanimously in favor of the Betsy Ann Ross House of Hope. As he left the lecture hall at Augusta City Center, chairman Peter Fortunato said it was a hard decision and difficult process, but he is confident the board acted appropriately.

This was the third meeting this year for the five-person Zoning Board of Appeals and the seventh appeal heard since 2013.

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ

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