The Sanford Board of Appeals convened Wednesday night, November 13, for a hearing regarding a Violation Notice issued by Sanford Fire Marshal Patrick Cotter that would have required me, as the owner of a 10-bed men’s recovery residence on Boyd Street, to either make roughly $15k in unnecessary renovations to the home or evict almost all the men who live there and are recovering from the misery of drug and alcohol addiction.
Since I first received his notice almost two months ago, I’ve found it shocking.
Sanford is a small, salt of the earth city that has seen more than its share of tragedy over the last few years as a vicious opiate epidemic has devastated many of the town’s struggling families. The Press Herald even ran a feature story a couple years ago about how severe Sanford’s drug crisis has been. When I talk to folks there, it seems like everybody in town has lost a loved one to the horrible disease of addiction.
So, about a year and a half ago, when I first met a group of folks there who’d started a recovery residence that they called the Journey House, I was happy to step in and help. Spending time with other men in recovery has been one of the main things that’s enabled me to turn my own life around, and I was eager to find a way to give back.
The residents on Boyd Street had been having a hard time with their landlord, so I called him up, bought the building from him and helped the residents fix it up. They painted it. Patched the trim. I bought a new washer and dryer for the house. In no time at all, the house was looking good and working well.
The guys there, who are all in recovery from addiction, pool the cost of rent and utilities and split up the five bedrooms among themselves with two guys per room. They might not be connected by blood or marriage, but they still live together as a family, often sharing food with each other and fighting over the remote control in the living room like brothers.
So I was really surprised when Fire Marshal Cotter walked through the house in the middle of September and informed me that I was, in fact, operating a “rooming house.” For one thing, I don’t rent the house by the room. In fact, the bedrooms don’t even lock. There’s no innkeeper making muffins in the morning. It’s nothing like a bed and breakfast. But that was his assertion, and “rooming houses” in Maine are required to meet certain physical standards, including having sprinklers, fire doors and a fire alarm panel. When I got it all priced out, in total, it was going to cost around $15k to meet his demands.
The guys in the house don’t have much money, and I collect just enough rent to cover my operating costs for the building. Sure, I want the guys to be safe, but they aren’t any more at risk than the residents of any other single family house. If I didn’t do the work, however, the fire marshal made clear that he was going to force me to evict almost all the guys.
Sanford isn’t the first town where this has come up. In fact, recovery advocates in Augusta worked hard over the last legislative session to pass a state law regarding this specific issue, requiring that any recovery residence that meets a certain high set of standards, which this house always has, legally be considered as a normal residence for a family, not a “rooming house.”
This new law came about following similar threats from the town code officials in Augusta. A state rep from there, Justin Fecteau, took the issue to the State House this year and earned the support of both houses of the legislature, and Governor Mills signed it into law. It just went into effect this fall.
When I brought the new law to the attention of Fire Marshal Cotter, however, he said it didn’t apply. He wouldn’t tell me why not, but he made it clear the violation stood. Get the work done. Or get out.
So I hired a lawyer, filed a formal appeal, and Wednesday night of this week found me in front of the Sanford Zoning Board of Appeals, sitting next to my attorney as he plead my case. When the hearing opened up for public comment, one resident of the house described how the support he received living at the home had enabled him to overcome late stage alcoholism and debilitating mental illness and regain a full, healthy and sober life for himself as a member of the Sanford community.
After the time for public input closed, the board deliberated for just a few minutes before determining that, despite the fire marshal’s flimsy attempt at an argument to the contrary, of course his order was in clear violation of the new state law. Fire Marshal Cotter’s notice has now been struck down in its entirety.
As I understand it, this is the whole purpose of the new law. While recovery residences in other states have had to rely on the federal protections offered by the Fair Housing Act, the State of Maine now has clear policy in place to protect recovery residences from the sort of undue discriminatory financial burdens that local officials often seek to impose upon them.
I’m really glad we won. If we hadn’t, our defeat could have sent a clear message to fire departments and code officials around Maine that they have free reign to ignore the new law entirely. Existing recovery residences around the state could be in danger of shutting down, and new houses might never have been able to open, putting Mainers struggling with their sobriety into increasingly dire straights.
A lot of the guys on Boyd Street have difficult relationships with their families. Some have become separated from their kids. But, at the end of the day, they have a family of brothers to come home to, and I’m really grateful that, even if local people don’t always get it, the State of Maine sees the difference between that and a rooming house and protects them accordingly.