The Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter wants to buy this vacant building at 8 Highwood St. in Waterville and turn it into apartments. The City Council on Tuesday, though, couldn’t muster the supermajority needed to rezone the land to allow for a development benefiting seniors and disabled adults with families. Though the vote was 4-3 in favor, a supermajority requires five votes. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file

WATERVILLE — A failed bid to rezone a Highwood Street property to allow for housing pitted city councilors against each other this week and prompted the council chairwoman to say it is a step backward in the city’s efforts to alleviate a housing crisis.

The Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter wants to buy the vacant office building and turn it into mostly apartments for seniors and disabled adults with families, as well as some temporary emergency units for homeless people, but the rezoning is necessary to do so. The Planning Board earlier recommended the council rezone the site at 8 Highwood St.

After a long discussion, the council voted 4-3 to approve the rezoning, but it requires a supermajority vote of at least five councilors to pass. It also requires two council votes and only one could be taken Tuesday. But since the request failed, there will not be a second vote.

Chairwoman Rebecca Green, D-Ward 4, who also chairs the Waterville Housing Committee, said she was disappointed in the council.

“I think it’s a huge mistake,” she said, “and I don’t know how this council thinks we’re going to make progress on our housing issue if we can’t pass a project like that which is so well thought out, which came to us from the Planning Board, vetted with input from the community. I just don’t know what to say. I’m very disappointed.”

She and Councilors Flavia DeBrito, D-Ward 2, Thomas Klepach, D-Ward 3, and Claude Francke, D-Ward 6, voted to approve the rezoning. Councilors Mike Morris, D-Ward 1, Rick Foss, R-Ward 5, and Tom McCormick, who represents Ward 7 as an independent, voted against. The property is located in Morris’ ward.

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Two people who live near the site expressed concern that tenants in the apartment building would be able to see into windows of a nearby home. Brian Watson, the homeless shelter’s building committee chairman, said there are ways to mitigate that, including by using translucent glass in windows.

Morris said there were too many unanswered questions about the project and no real solution for buffers at the site.

“I love the thought of this — I really do,” he said. “I don’t like the location. I think that we have a responsibility to citizens and people that live in the community.”

Foss agreed with Morris that “it’s a great idea,” but he didn’t want to see the city get into another situation like that of the former Sacred Heart Catholic Church property where an events center was proposed but neighbors objected. In that case, unlike with the Highwood Street property, the Planning Board did not recommend rezoning.

Mayor Jay Coelho urged the parties to discuss and find solutions to the Highwood Street issue. Foss said the council could give the parties a “couple more weeks” to work it out.

Katie Spencer White, the homeless shelter’s executive director, said she hopes to get Maine Housing Authority funds for the project, estimated to cost between $10 million and $15 million, and if the property is not rezoned, it could lose funding to larger cities such as Bangor and Portland. The shelter has raised other money and hopes to get some federal COVID-19 relief funds for the project as well.

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Green asked White if the project could still move forward if the council tabled the request for two weeks. White said it could not, as a final bid must be in to Maine Housing by the second week in June, and the shelter has an option to purchase the Highwood property that ends on May 28.

After the vote, Coelho expressed dismay with the decision.

“I hope the elderly people in our community can find a place to live,” he said.

Planning Board Chairwoman Samantha Burdick also objected to the outcome.

“I’m very disappointed in this council — just so I’ve gotten that off my chest,” she said.

Foss, meanwhile, criticized those who insisted on voting Tuesday, saying they could have waited another two weeks, “but we wanted to ram it down the agenda and be done with it.”

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He said all councilors want such projects. “We just didn’t want to knee-jerk it, OK? We’ve done that before.”

Green said she didn’t know what Foss was talking about.

“I think the discussion’s over,” she said. “The vote’s done.”

A first vote to approve the rezoning would have kept the matter alive, Green said, adding that it seemed to her there was a “complete unwillingness to be open” about the project. Foss interrupted, saying he would make a motion to adjourn the meeting.

“No, I’m still talking,” Green shot back.

City Manager Steve Daly said Wednesday that the idea of the council reconsidering the matter was being discussed. He said for the council to reconsider, a councilor who voted to reject the rezoning would have to request it be brought back up.

In other matters, the council voted to approve rezoning 5 Middle St. and part of 72 Pleasant St. to allow for Ware-Butler Building Supply to use the office on the former Sacred Heart Catholic Church property for its corporate offices and to also use the parking lot for storing materials.

Klepach said he wanted to recognize, by name, the city workers who treated more than 1,000 trees in the city for browntail moth within a 1 1/2 week period. They are crew leader Sam Green and Steve Buzzell, Shawn Stetson, Chad Glidden, Kyle Jordan and Jay Jordan.

The council also voted to approve an agreement with the Alfond Youth & Community Center to staff and operate the municipal pool and do the programming and marketing. The city will continue to maintain it.

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