Fire concerns complicate Otisfield convent expansion

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OTISFIELD — Fire Chief Kyle Jordan told the Planning Board on Tuesday night that ensuring the safety of four nuns and their guests at the Community of the Resurrection is his top priority.

Board members, some of whom are on the Fire Department, agreed with Jordan, who spoke during a review of a proposed 50-seat chapel at the convent on Poplar Ridge Road off Route 121.

The fire chief said long and narrow hallways in a large, rambling nearly century-old farmhouse and barn in a remote section of town could spell disaster should a fire break out in the nine-bedroom complex.

“My concern is with the structure,” Jordan said. “There’s a chance they couldn’t make it out.”

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The Sisters plan to add a 1,000-square-foot chapel.

Jordan told the board and representatives of the project that he recommended the buildings have interconnected smoke alarms, a fire suppressor in the kitchen and, if financially feasible, a sprinkler system.

The Community of the Resurrection on Poplar Ridge Road off Route 121 houses four nuns and some female guests seeking solace and guidance from abusive situations. The guests stay in bedrooms on the first floor while the nuns occupy the second floor.

Sister Renata, the founder of the Community of Resurrection, and Sister Christine, who attended the meeting with structural engineer Jason  Potter of Woodbury Hill Professionals in Auburn, said there are smoke detectors throughout the building, including some believed to be hard-wired. The buildings lack fire suppressant systems such as sprinklers, they said.

Jordan said in the case of a fire, a second alarm would automatically sound, bringing in engines from towns, including Harrison, Poland and Casco. Additionally, tanker trucks would be called in from other towns such as Raymond and Naples to shuttle water to the site.

Planning Board Vice Chairman Beth Damon, head of the town’s Emergency Medical Service and assistant fire chief, said her concern was being aware of how many people were in the building at any time in case of an emergency.

The Sisters have agreed to communicate with the fire chief about changes in the number of guests so the Fire Department has a handle on where they would need to search in case of an emergency.

“It could be very, very challenging for a search and rescue,” Jordan said of the complex that was known for years as Arcadia Farm.

Jordan told the Sun Journal that he has not inspected the farm so he was unable to confirm whether the structure is a balloon-frame like many older wood-framed buildings.

Balloon framing uses long, vertical 2 by 4s for the exterior walls. The long “studs” extend uninterrupted, from the sill on top of the foundation to the roof, which firefighters say allows flames to quickly got up the sides.

Jordan and Planning Board members said they were concerned about rescue workers knowing where everyone was housed at any given time.

“We’re all familiar with our homes but all too often people don’t get out of their homes,” Jordan said.

Anne Henderson Fritts, granddaughter of Dr. George Meylan, who bought the camp in 1917, one year after it was founded and who owned Arcadia Farm for many years, told the Sun Journal the original farm burned around 1930 to 1932 shortly after Meylan retired to Otisfield in 1929.

The buildings were immediately rebuilt.

The Planning Board unanimously voted to consider the application complete Tuesday night, pending approval of the fire chief’s requests being satisfied and copies of certified receipts provided.

The vote does not mean the application is approved, simply that the process can move ahead to the site visit.

The board has scheduled a site visit for Sept. 8. The board also voted not to hold a public hearing.

Planning Board member Richard Jackson abstained from voting because he is an abutter to the convent. Alternate member Stan Brett was appointed a full member for the purpose of voting Tuesday night. Alternate David Hyer also was appointed a full member in Chairman Karen Turino’s absence in order to vote on the matter.

Damon was acting chairman at Tuesday night’s meeting.

ldixon@sunmediagroup.com

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