AUGUSTA — A proposal to provide mental health, addiction and other counseling services at a now-vacant Winthrop Street property, which was opposed by some of its neighbors and rejected by the Planning Board last year, goes back to the board Tuesday in a scaled-back form.

The owners of counseling firm Blue Willow Counseling said that while board members primarily cited parking concerns in rejecting the proposal, they suspect some of the concern about what they want to do at 103 Winthrop St. is based on their clientele, not the number of parking spaces.

Jennifer Wood, who with her husband and business partner Brian proposes to purchase the former office building for use by Blue Willow Counseling, said Sunday they’ve had no problems with clients, or neighbors, at their other counseling offices in Portland, Lewiston and in leased space at 9 Green St. in Augusta, and concerns about their clients potentially being disruptive to the neighborhood are misplaced.

“We didn’t realize we’d get that kind of push-back,”Jennifer Wood said of the opposition several neighbors expressed at a July 10 Augusta Planning Board meeting at which the board voted unanimously to deny their application. “I got the sense it was more about people with addiction issues and mental health issues, more about not wanting these people in their backyard.”

She said they’ve never had problems with their neighbors at other locations, and their clients are everyday people — doctors, lawyers, blue collar workers and others — looking for help dealing with depression and other mental health issues or help overcoming addictions to drugs or alcohol.

Neighbors to the property who spoke against the proposal said it would bring additional traffic to the neighborhood they’ve worked hard to make, and keep, primarily residential.

“I know we do have some businesses there, and the neighborhood has worked very hard and fairly and willingly with the group homes we have in the neighborhood, but we’ve also worked hard to eliminate a lot of excess traffic in our neighborhood,” said 28-year Spring Street resident Cheryl Clukey, suggesting there are buildings in the downtown area of the city that would be perfect for the proposed services. “It will really affect our neighborhood, in terms of foot traffic, business traffic, just a lot of excess cars.”

The property is in the city’s Institutional Business Professional Zone where social services are a conditional use. Conditional uses in zoning districts generally require a higher level of review of the neighborhood compatibility of a project than permitted uses.

Board members who rejected the proposal unanimously at their July meeting cited worries about the impact of increased traffic it could bring to the Winthrop Street neighborhood.

“It has nothing to do with the nature of the business. It has to do with allowing one more business in a neighborhood where people have fought hard to protect the neighborhood,” board member Peter Pare said. “It’s the traffic that’ll be generated by people going in.”

In response to concerns about parking, the Woods made a new plan, reducing the number of employees that will work at the site from 10 to 12 down to between three and five full-time, state-licensed professional counselors. The revamped proposal goes to the board at their 7 p.m. meeting Tuesday in council chambers at Augusta City Center.

One issue that came up in July, Jennifer Wood said, has since been resolved, in their favor.

Scott Upham, of Cribstone Capital Management, which shares a parking lot on North Chestnut Street with the 103 Winthrop St. property, raised questions about a parking easement for 103 Winthrop and claimed the site didn’t have the 12 parking spaces needed to meet city minimum parking requirements.

Wood said they have since had a survey done and determined they have the 12 spaces needed, or possibly are short only one space.

Upham also cited other concerns about the proposal in July, noting Winthrop Street has historically been filled with professional services firms such as accountants, and that “my employees are very concerned about the aesthetic of having counseling services juxtaposed to a professional services organization. We also have concerns about our clients co-mingling.”

Bill Tisdale, current owner of 103 Winthrop St., said he’s owned it since 2006, and his father owned it for 20 years prior to that. He’s had it on the market for sale since 2012 but thus far has been unable to find a buyer.

He believes parking is not really what’s behind neighbors’ concerns about the proposal.

“I think it’s because these particular people want to use it,” said Tisdale, who grew up in the Winthrop Street neighborhood but now lives just outside Bangor. “I’m a little hurt the neighbors came out so strongly against it. It’s been empty six, going on seven, years. I was shocked they’d rather have a building vacant rather than a reputable business in it. Their mission (of providing counseling services) is a huge and growing need in Maine. To me, this is the best possible thing this community could have.”

He said the city is putting him in an impossible position when it comes to selling the 1856 building, in which any new use would have to be approved by all its neighbors.

The Winthrop Street site would replace Blue Willow’s current site, in leased space on Green Street.

Jennifer Wood said they want to own their own building, and the home-like setting of the Winthrop Street building would be a better, more comforting setting for people coming for counseling sessions. She noted it would not be a residential facility and would not have clients coming at night or on weekends. She noted most of their clients don’t have their own cars and would use public transportation to get to the location, so they wouldn’t need space to park. The business will not have any medications at the site.

She said in a typical day a counselor might see five clients. With five counselors on site, that would mean 25 clients coming for one-hour appointments in a typical day.

Among the services Blue Willow offers is Driver Education and Evaluation Program sessions, which drivers convicted of operating under the influence are often required to attend.

Heather Pouliot, a former member of the Planning Board who lives next to the site with her husband, State Sen. Matt Pouliot, said at the July meeting that the area is primarily a residential neighborhood, and the counseling services use would bring a lot of foot traffic to the neighborhood. She said in the winter they’ve had problems with snow plowed from the parking lot at 103 Winthrop being plowed onto their property, damaging it.

Brian Wood said Sunday they take good care of their properties and would be careful in removing snow from the parking lots there.

Jennifer Wood said they’ve offered counseling at their Lewiston site, where there are 13 counselors, for 17 years to children and adults without incident and without complaints from neighbors. The location is across the street from schools, she said.

“These are not hard-core criminals. These are people who are here because they want to be,” Jennifer Wood said of their clients. “We have individuals ranging from doctors and lawyers to nurses, children, individuals with developmental disabilities, blue collar workers, and also some clients who have gotten OUIs or may be having substance abuse issues. We get people looking for help with grief, depression, anxiety… they come from all walks of life.”

 

Keith Edwards — 621-5647
[email protected]
Twitter: @kedwardskj


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