The Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter is working to purchase and rehab the vacant site at 8 Highwood St. in Waterville so that it can become apartments for seniors and disabled adults with families, with some temporary emergency units for the homeless. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

WATERVILLE — The City Council has given initial approval to rezoning a Highwood Street property to provide housing for the city’s most vulnerable population after earlier this month failing to muster the votes needed to OK the plan.

But the council must take a second vote to finalize the rezoning and at least two councilors, Mike Morris, D-Ward 1, and Rick Foss, R-Ward 5, made it clear at Tuesday’s special meeting that they were voting to approve only to keep a discussion going with residents of the neighborhood who have concerns about the project at 8 Highwood St.

Councilor Tom McCormick, an independent who represents Ward 7, said last week that he regretted rejecting the proposal to rezone the property as housing is so sorely needed, and he asked that the matter be reconsidered.

The Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter wants to buy the vacant Highwood Street building and turn it into apartments for seniors and disabled adults with families, with some temporary emergency units for the homeless. Rezoning is necessary to do so. The Planning Board voted 7-0 on April 26 to recommend the council rezone the site.

The City Council voted 4-3 on May 3 to approve the rezoning, but it requires a supermajority vote of at least five councilors to pass.

Since the request failed, there was not to be a second vote. However, the city charter allows such a matter to be heard again if at least one councilor who voted on the prevailing side asks for reconsideration, which McCormick did.

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The homeless shelter’s executive director, Katie Spencer White, says timely rezoning is necessary for the project to move forward because deadlines need to be met for funding from Maine State Housing Authority and the shelter would not buy the building if the property is not rezoned.

People would be screened before they could live in the building, which would have 24/7 surveillance. White said the homeless shelter on Colby Street is a low barrier shelter that allows people with major mental illnesses, those with addiction and those with criminal backgrounds. It is important that families with children not be housed in the same building and the shelter has long looked to develop a safe place where seniors could be housed with families and children, according to White.

Council Chairperson Rebecca Green, D-Ward 4, and Councilors Flavia DeBrito, D-Ward 2, Thomas Klepach, D-Ward 3, and Claude Francke, D-Ward 6, voted on May 3 to approve the rezoning, but McCormick joined Morris and Foss in voting against.

Morris, in whose ward the project is proposed, has said he thinks the project is necessary but the location is not ideal and he represents those who don’t want it in their neighborhood and don’t feel their concerns have been addressed.

Some people Tuesday cited concerns about increased traffic and noise from such a development and wanted to know if there would be increased police protection in the now-quiet neighborhood where there is little need for patrols.

Green cited the great need for housing.

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“Thank you, Councilor McCormick, for reconsidering and allowing us to have this conversation again,” she said. “It’s a really important one to have. Communities all over the state are having it and the country, actually, as we face a housing crisis.”

Waterville, she said, has 53% renters compared to 47% homeowner-occupied housing and rental prices are high and getting worse, she said. The Highwood Street project is important and the vacant building would be hard to rehabilitate with private funding, she said. The city has 77 vacant buildings representing about 100 units, or more, of housing, she said.

After Brian Watson, chair of the shelter’s building committee, reported that an engineer and contractor determined the Highwood building is suitable for redeveloping, McCormick said that in his ward, people are being evicted from buildings that are being sold and they don’t know where they are going to go as there are no more rental properties in the ward. McCormick said he has to look at the big picture regarding housing needs and the Highwood development would fill a need.

“We’re losing right now — we’re not gaining,” he said. “This would be a gain.”

Discussion touched on a comment someone made in past meetings about people living in the Highwood apartment building being able to see through the windows of a nearby house. Watson said no decisions have been made, but it is possible that the third floor of the building would not have apartments.

Preliminary plans call for the College Avenue side of the building to be developed as a first phase, and that would include developing about 12 apartments. Shelter officials could not answer some questions about the project as it is too early in the process.

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Planning Board Chairperson Samantha Burdick explained that there have been several public hearings on the rezoning proposal, which had not been rushed, contrary to what some people have claimed. She said the building, vacant about 10 years, most recently was an office building, but before that it was used for housing. It was built as a nurses’ college and became vacant after World War II and then nuns moved in until MaineGeneral took over the building as temporary office space, according to Burdick, who said that is how the property in a residential zone became a Contract-A zoned site. Rezoning would return it to residential, she said.

Several others spoke in favor of the project, saying there is a critical need for housing and councilors should take into consideration the needs of all residents, including the most vulnerable.

“I am in total support of this effort,” resident Nancy Sanford said. “To me, if we can give elderly, poor people and homeless families a place to be, why not?”

White invited community members to give input on what the development should include and said she welcomes residents to serve on a committee to address concerns and make decisions.

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