FARMINGTON — Plans for a family homeless shelter in the downtown have been abandoned.

Chris Magri, moderator of the First Congregational Church in Farmington, stands in front of the Holman House on Main Street in downtown Farmington. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

For more than 18 months, Western Maine Homeless Outreach studied and planned to open a new shelter at the Holman House, a historic building owned by Farmington’s Old South Congregational Church. On Monday night, following a public hearing marked by passionate and heated testimony, the group abandoned those plans.

Steve Bracy, pastor for Living Waters Assembly of God, the church that hosts the group’s 16-bed shelter, said the decision to walk away was made after the Planning Board reversed its decision on how a homeless shelter could be categorized within the town’s existing ordinances.

“We’ve concluded after a year and a half of research and expense that using the Holman House is not worth it,” Bracy said.

While no ordinance specifically addresses homeless shelters, town attorney Amanda Meader had advised the planning Board of a previous Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruling that if an ordinance doesn’t ban a particular use, it can be considered. If there is no clear definition, the board could look at all uses in the Table of Uses and determine where a homeless shelter reasonably fits.

Based on this assessment, the Planning Board voted 4-3 on Monday that the shelter proposed by the homeless outreach group would be considered a group home, which is allowed under town ordinance. However, abutting neighbors John and Jen Moore objected to the decision on the grounds that zoning rules require any group home to be licensed by the state of Maine. According to the group’s Operations Director Bobbie Jo Wheeler, there is no licensing requirement for shelters, so they cannot conform to that part of the ordinance.

Living Waters Assembly of God is not constrained by the group home ordinance requirement because the shelter’s location falls within accessory use to an existing building. Western Maine Homeless Outreach has been housed in the church’s basement for the past six years

The Moores’ objection was presented to the board at the beginning of the hearing by their attorney, Matt Manahan of Pierce Atwood. He stated concerns about neighborhood loitering during daylight hours when the facility would be closed and increases in police calls.

The board then discussed motions on whether to continue the public hearing, or whether to reconsider its June 9 decision. A motion was passed to hear public input, but then to revote on whether classifying a family homeless shelter as a group home would be allowed.

About two dozen residents and representatives testified on both sides of the issue of the Holman House, with all underscoring Farmington’s growing awareness of and need to battle homelessness in Franklin County.

“Homeless shelters are not part of our ordinances because no one foresaw the need,” retired town attorney Frank Underkuffler said. “Getting it right is more important than getting it right the first time. The ordinance does not accommodate a shelter.”

Mike Pond, a Farmington resident, took some to task for what he called fear-mongering in the community. “Do it because it’s the right thing to do,” he said. He asked a woman attending the meeting to stand. “Look at her. She was homeless. Does she look scary to you?”

The last person to testify was John Moore, the neighbor who objected to locating the family shelter at the Holman House. He said the shelter was objectionable on both legal and community grounds, and countered that while many businesses had signed on as supporters, others in the downtown neighborhood had not.

But the Moores are committed to solving the crisis of homelessness, he said. “I will chair a board to raise funds and locate the shelter in a different, more appropriate site. I think there is a way we can all work together to get services to the homeless.”

Following the hearing, the Planning Board voted on the proposal again it and it failed, with five opposing, one supporting, and one abstaining.

“The issue and application are now dead, assuming there is no appeal,” said Board Chairman Clayton King Jr., who voted against approval both times. He said that after the initial vote some on the board felt they had not stayed within the ordinance requirement.

There will be no appeal on the Holman House.

The Western Maine Homeless Outreach board of directors, of which Bracy is president, has taken Moore up on his gesture. The two sides will be meeting this week to discuss taking the plan for a family shelter in a new direction.

“Although we are sorry to have spent our resources pursuing the Holman House, we are so pleased with the great support that Farmington has shown to fight homelessness,” Bracy said. “We have gained support for our mission, and we now have more key people to help us look at fundraising, and also for a permanent location that we will own.”


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