AUGUSTA — The Planning Board, for the second time, tabled a controversial proposal to locate a substance abuse and mental health counseling service at a Winthrop Street site where it is opposed by many of its neighbors.

The proposal to move Blue Willow Counseling to 103 Winthrop St. was already tabled once last month by the Planning Board after hours of often contentious debate at a meeting attended by dozens of people who spoke about the proposal.

The Planning Board voted Tuesday to approve a motion by A. Delaine Nye to table the application until Blue Willow comes back with an engineered traffic design showing a parking lot with lines for parking spaces that meet current standards — which the smaller spaces in the current lot do not — and that meets standards for adequacy, maneuverability, safe access and egress. The plan must also include a parking space for people with disabilities and not include a crescent-shaped driveway between the building and Winthrop Street that city staff have previously indicated could be used for parking for up to two vehicles.

Parking and traffic concerns have been a major focus of neighbors’ complaints about the proposal to use the building for mental health and substance abuse counseling services.

Board member Peter Pare said he drove into the parking lot in question in his Toyota Tacoma, a mid-size pickup truck about 16-feet long. Even though there was only one other vehicle in the lot, he said he had to drive back and forth several times, turning a bit each time, to get back out of his parking space without hitting any of the buildings or other obstacles around the lot.

“It took me five minutes to get out of that spot, in and out, in and out,” Pare said. “If you have five cars parked there and they’re not compacts or subcompacts, it’s going to be a zoo getting in and out of that place.”

He expressed concern someone could be forced, due to the tight confines, to back out of the parking lot into the road, which he said could be dangerous.

Jennifer Wood, chief executive officer and an owner of Blue Willow Counseling, said before the meeting that the parking is adequate. She said she was told by city officials that the parking spaces were considered grandfathered, so they didn’t have to meet current standards.

In a March 4 memo, city Engineer Nicholas Hartley stated that because Blue Willow does not propose to do any site work as part of its proposal, “… the dimensions of any parking stalls, access aisles, and driveway widths on the parcel are considered grandfathered.”

However, Kristin Collins, an attorney for the city, said Tuesday the board could “absolutely” require the business to have a parking lot that meets current standards.

Wood said they have as many as 14 spots, more than the required number.

Because of the extensive public comment made at the previous, four-hour meeting at which the proposal was tabled, the Planning Board did not take additional public comments on the proposal Tuesday. The city did receive a number of emails from residents weighing in on the proposal. Some of those emails stated the proposal would hinder efforts to return the Winthrop Street area back to a residential neighborhood, while others said the parking at the site is inadequate.

Cheryl Clukey, who stated she was speaking on behalf of the West Side Neighbors group of area residents, wrote that members of the group recently took 11 cars to the site to test out its two parking lots. She said two of the designated spaces are in walkways or block stairways and thus shouldn’t be counted, and in general “maneuvering cars in parking lot below was cramped, chaotic, and not safe.”

Wood said before Tuesday’s meeting she and her husband, Brian, plan to purchase the property even if they are not allowed to use it for counseling services. They own a property management company, which would be buying the building, and would find a use for it, such as renting it for other professional services or converting it into apartments.

Built in 1856, the building has been vacant in recent years but previously served as office and training space for Women Unlimited. It is assessed by the city at $207,600. 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.

Blue Willow would use the building to replace its existing Augusta location in leased space at 9 Green St. The firm also has counseling offices in Portland and Lewiston.

City staff initially deemed the proposed counseling service to be a social services operation under city definitions. However, Deputy City Planner Betsy Poulin said Tuesday since the proposal was first made and discussion occurred about the details of the use, city staff now recommend the proposal be reviewed as a medical clinic, not a social service.

Both a medical clinic and social service use requires a conditional use review in the zone where the site is located, though the parking standards for each are somewhat different.

 

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

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