The Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter wants to buy this vacant building at 8 Highwood St. in Waterville to turn into apartments primarily for seniors and families. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

WATERVILLE — An effort to house some of the most vulnerable people in the city received a boost this week when the Planning Board voted 7-0 to recommend the City Council rezone a property on Highwood Street so it can be used for family and senior apartments and temporary emergency units for homeless families.

The Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter wants to buy 8 Highwood St., which has been vacant many years and formerly housed HealthReach offices. It would be used to house between 20 and 30 people, including adults with children. Most of the apartments would be permanent housing.

The board’s vote Tuesday followed a lengthy discussion that included concerns from people who live in the neighborhood about a possible increase in traffic and whether they should fear those living at the apartments.

Katie Spencer White, executive director of the homeless shelter at 19 Colby St., explained that the Highwood Street building would be “high barrier” crisis housing, meaning it would not be available to sex offenders, those convicted of violent offenses and those with certain mental health illnesses that are untreated.

She said the shelter is seeking $5 million from MaineHousing, formerly known as the Maine State Housing Authority, to help develop the building.

Brian Watson, chairman of the shelter’s building committee, said the Highwood apartments would be used as short-term housing for homeless families until they find permanent housing.

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“The balance of the units would be mostly one-bedroom apartments for families and seniors,” he said.

About 80% of the apartments would be for families and seniors, and 20% reserved for the temporary emergency housing. Watson said it would be staffed around the clock and seven days a week.

He said shelter officials hope to begin construction to renovate the building in six to eight months, and that the shelter hopes to partner with other entities to help increase housing opportunities in the city.

“Our goal is to end homelessness in this community,” he said.

Adam Murray, who lives in the Highwood neighborhood, acknowledged the struggle many face when looking for housing, but said some people in the area are worried about the impact the project could have. Two years ago, there was a standoff at the 8 Highwood St. building and a house was shot at, he said. The building is so close to houses that one can see in the windows, he said, asking that officials work with neighbors to ease their anxiety.

“I hope that there’s an open line of communication about this as we move forward,” Murray said.

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Watson said the homeless shelter has been housing people at hotels for two years with no trouble, and hotel operators have been complimentary about how the shelter manages the effort.

Planning Board member Cassie Julia said she assumed there would be rules for living at the building, and there would not be loud block parties.

Watson confirmed her sentiments, reiterating that staff members would be on-site at all times.

“The safety and security of of our families and our children is very important,” Watson said.

Julia said her son and daughter are students in the public schools and it is hard for them to see homeless students having to transition and leave the area. She said the Highwood apartments would provide a secure place for them to live in a stable environment.

“It’s shocking to me how many children are homeless in the Waterville school system,” she said.

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Board Chair Samantha Burdick agreed that children deserve to be able to get off the bus, go into their apartment building and play on the playground.

“I actually think it is a really great fit for a neighborhood because it has families in it,” Burdick said, “and everybody deserves the dignity to grow up in a really nice neighborhood, too.”

Highwood Street is off College Avenue, and 8 Highwood is across the street from Mount Saint Joseph Residence & Rehabilitation. Shelter officials said they seek to rezone the property from Contract Zoned District/Commercial-A to Commercial C-1.

In other matters Tuesday, the board voted 7-0 to recommend the City Council rezone 5 Middle St. and part of 72 Pleasant St. from Residential-B to Contract Zoned District/Commercial-A to allow Ware-Butler Building Supply to move its corporate offices to an office building on the property and use the parking lot for people working at that office.

The former Sacred Heart Catholic Church and rectory are on the 72 Pleasant St. property, but are not included in the property being considered for rezoning. Officials from Ware-Butler, which bought the property March 23, have not determined a use for the church and rectory, but plan to maintain it, they said.

The board voted 7-0 to approve preliminary and final plans for a 32,700-square-foot addition to Waterville Junior High School at 100 West River Road that is to become the new Albert S. Hall School for fourth and fifth graders. The existing Hall School on Pleasant Street has classrooms too small for adequate social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Superintendent Eric Haley.

The board also voted 7-0 to approve revisions to a previously approved plan for self-storage units on Webb Road.

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