The neighbors of a small farm off Friendship Road in Waldoboro whose new owner hopes to create a Christian short-term group home featuring culinary programs for deaf and partially deaf young adults, as well as low-income young adults, asked the Waldoboro Planning Board to block the project during a meeting Wednesday, May 10.
The focus of the meeting at the town office was a pre-site plan review for the Loaves and Fishers Inc. property at 23 Spruce Lane.
During the informational meeting, Loaves and Fishers Inc. founder Isabella Mastroianni explained the organization’s plans, while abutters raised concerns about the impact of the project on the neighborhood.
Mastroianni said she purchased the 4-acre farm with the intent of providing a Christian group home for deaf and partially deaf adults ages 18-22, as well as economically disadvantaged adults of the same age, for 12-week programs.
She said the nonprofit would help raise money for scholarships to its programs. During each session, the nonprofit would feed, house, and mentor participants, and it would provide job training and placement assistance after their stay.
“We are taking young people who don’t have a lot of opportunity and giving them a chance to do something else. All individuals may not go into the culinary field. Another big part of this is adult mentoring with love and encouragement,” Mastroianni said.
The property features a late-18th-century, 6,000-square-foot farmhouse and a 10-year-old, 2,000-square-foot barn.
Mastroianni, who uprooted from New Jersey to start the nonprofit, said she looked at properties in eight states before deciding on the farm in Waldoboro.
“What we are bringing to the Midcoast and Waldoboro is something very positive for the community and for the applicants that are coming here,” Mastroianni said.
Mastroianni said the residential environment will be structured.
“This is meant for someone who has the passion and desire to do something with their lives and doesn’t have the economic or social support to do so,” Mastroianni said.
She said participants will be required to sign a legal affidavit to become residents, indicating their agreement to participate in activities and abide by the rules of the residence.
She said the organization would not admit at-risk individuals or those with social, behavioral, or addiction-related issues due to a lack of staff to meet those needs.
The guidelines include strict adherence to the group home’s drug-free policy and respect of the property boundaries.
“We have no desire or intent to trespass on anyone’s property,” Mastroianni said.
She said residents who disregard rules and guidelines will not be allowed to stay.
Additionally, she said applicants will undergo thorough background checks conducted by an outside organization. The background checks will include a criminal records check going back seven years, sex offender checks, and a drug offense search.
According to Mastroianni, individuals found to have any criminal or drug infractions will be ineligible for consideration at the group residence. The selection process will also feature civil searches and a motor-vehicle report.
She said the same level of screening will be applied to adult volunteers, and three adults will be in the residence at all times to ensure safety and compliance with house rules.
She said the house has been outfitted with a wireless, state-of-the-art security system which will be professionally monitored 24/7.
“We are really trying to make every effort to bring something that will be positive and respectful to the neighbors around us,” Mastroianni said.
Mastroianni said that when the system is armed, doors or windows opened from the inside or outside will trigger an alert.
She said the property was used as a bed-and-breakfast about a year prior to her purchase of the property.
Mastroianni said state regulations mandate that, as a group residence facility, the house must hold fewer than 16 beds.
She said residents will be encouraged to participate in local community service projects.
“We are looking to preserve land and agriculture and teach young people skills that will help them get a job, but we also want to teach them the importance of community, to look around and be aware of the needs around them,” Mastroianni said.
She said the nonprofit is a nondenominational Christian organization, accepting students of all faiths. Bible study and church attendance will be compulsory parts of the 12-week program.
She said the program is not a school and reiterated the benevolent aims of the program.
“I know there’s a lot of talk out there, but there is nothing sinister going on,” Mastroianni said.
Mastroianni said the hope is to have the program up and running by the spring of 2018.
During the meeting, Waldoboro attorney Natasha Irving delivered a memorandum of law to the Waldoboro Planning Board.
Irving is representing abutters Stephanie and Nicholas Irving, Sheila and Richard Irving, Dana Spofford, and Johnna Dehlinger and Shaun Rockett.
The memorandum of law asks the planning board to deny the application, arguing that the town’s land use ordinance bars the project.
Irving said the applicant is proposing to convert the existing building from residential to nonresidential use, which requires a site plan application, a process in which the applicant has the burden of proving the activity conforms with applicable regulations.
Irving said the proposal would fall under civic service facilities, a community service organization, or a school, none of which are permitted in the residential district where 23 Spruce Lane is located.
Additionally, Irving said that due to this non-conformity, the planning board would have to grant a variance for the project. She argued against a variance due to the land use ordinance’s purpose of conserving and enhancing the value of land and buildings in addition to the residential district’s purpose of retaining the rural character of Waldoboro, while protecting residential property values.
“I believe this is a wonderful idea and program. Unfortunately, I don’t believe it is permitted under law in this neighborhood,” Irving said.
Irving said the board of appeals, not the planning board, would have to grant a variance.
“I don’t feel it would be productive to go toward a full meeting here before this goes to the board of appeals,” Irving said.
According to Irving, the board of appeals may grant a variance only when strict application of the ordinance to the petitioner and the petitioner’s property would cause undue hardship. She said the proposal wouldn’t meet that standard.
Irving said that if the project goes ahead, it would change the character of the neighborhood forever.
“It’s a small, tight-knit community, with a lot of children, that’s been there for a long time,” Irving said.
Richard Irving also raised concerns about the project and said a primary attraction to the neighborhood is the privacy it allows its residents. “Privacy is an essential character of the neighborhood,” he said.