AUGUSTA — The couple looking to move their counseling business into a 103 Winthrop St. building — to which numerous residents have expressed opposition — plan to buy it even if the Planning Board rejects their application to open the office.
The proposal to locate Blue Willow Counseling, tabled last month by the Augusta Planning Board after hours of heated debate, goes back to the board for a potential decision on its conditional-use application Tuesday night.
Jennifer Wood, chief executive officer and an owner of Blue Willow Counseling service, said Friday she and her husband, Brian, plan to purchase the property even if they are not allowed to use it for counseling services. They own a property management company, which would be buying the building, and would find a use for it. While they hope to use it for their counseling business, they could rent it for other professional services or convert it into apartments.
“We decided to go through with it regardless and purchase the building,” Wood said. “Ultimately, we’ll do something there. There are many opportunities to utilize it for, for which we don’t need a conditional-use license. Ultimately, we want to put Blue Willow there, but regardless (of that being approved), we’ll do something.”
Bill Tisdale, who has co-owned the 103 Winthrop St. property since 2006, said he rejected a new offer to buy the property from state Sen. Matt Pouliot, who owns the home next door with his wife Heather. He plans to go through with the sale of the property to the Woods’ property management company.
Tisdale, whose father owned the property for 20 years prior and has had it for sale since 2012, said he rejected Pouliot’s offer because he considered it to be an “extreme lowball offer.”
Pouliot, reached Friday, said he did indeed make an offer on the property, which was accepted, verbally, by Tisdale’s agent. When it was rejected, Pouliot said he was told it was because Tisdale was going to proceed with the offer from Blue Willow.
Pouliot said his offer was first $155,000, which he then increased to $165,000. The second offer is near the same amount Tisdale previously agreed to sell the property for to the Woods, $168,000, according to a since-expired purchase and sales agreement filed with the city in application materials for the project.
Pouliot, who is a real estate agent, said he offered to buy the property to help Tisdale “be made whole” and sell the property, because it could help ease neighborhood concerns about how the property could be used. He also said he could have converted it into a multi-family apartment building.
“I felt like maybe we can do it the old-fashioned way, and buy the building and do a residential use with it, which people in the neighborhood seemed like they would be happy about,” Pouliot said. “He agreed to accept my offer. Then when I got back to town I got a call, and his agent said he was going to proceed with the Blue Willow offer.”
Built in 1856, the building has been vacant in recent years but previously served as office and training space for Women Unlimited. It is assessed by the city at $207,600.
Parking and traffic concerns have been at the forefront of neighbors’ complaints about the proposal to use the building for mental health and substance abuse counseling services. Blue Willow would use the building to replace its existing Augusta location in leased space at 9 Green St. The firm also has counseling offices in Portland and Lewiston.
The parking lots between 103 Winthrop St., center, as seen from the window of Cribstone Capital Management located around the corner on North Chestnut Street on Thursday in Augusta.Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan
Cribstone Capital Management, located in a North Chestnut Street building, shares two parking lots with 103 Winthrop St. Those lots are what city staff used to determine Blue Willow has enough parking spaces to meet city standards. Cribstone owner Scott Upham said the city used an inaccurate easement dating to the mid-1980s that indicates there are 21 spaces between the upper and lower parking lots, 12 of which are allotted to 103 Winthrop St.
Upham said there are not as many usable spaces in the lots as the easement indicates. He noted city engineer Nick Hartley estimated at a previous Planning Board meeting there were about 14 parking spaces between the two lots, and the spaces are smaller than required by current standards. Upham said the spaces counted include two that would block walkways to his business, several so narrow a vehicle would have a hard time maneuvering if another were parked next to it. He also said three parallel parking spaces are so close together — and so close to 103 Winthrop St. — he doesn’t think a vehicle would be able to use a spot if another vehicle were in a spot next to it.
“The only way you’d get three vehicles in there is if you lowered them in by helicopter. There’s no way for them to get in and out of there,” Upham said. “This could be creating a big problem for us. It will lead to friction.”
Scott Upham, managing partner of Cribstone Capital Management, talks about the parking controversy near his office, in background right, and 103 Winthrop St., foreground, on Thursday on North Chestnut Street in Augusta.Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan
It’s even worse in the winter, Upham said, because the confines of the properties don’t provide space to store snow, and after storms it is plowed into some of the parking spaces in the lots.
Noting that he is a board member of Tedford Housing in Brunswick, a nonprofit organization that helps homeless people find housing, Upham stressed that he isn’t opposed to the counseling services Blue Willow offers. He said those services are very much needed but doesn’t believe that use fits the Winthrop Street site.
He said either apartments or a small business that doesn’t draw many visitors could be a good fit for the property. He said a counseling service that could have up to 20 people at it at a time, between staff and clients, is too much for the site. Several other neighborhood residents have said the same thing.
In a March 4 memo about the easement, which was filed in 1986, Hartley stated the city’s technical standards for parking spaces were adopted in 1991. Because Blue Willow does not propose to do any site work as part of its proposal, he wrote, “… the dimensions of any parking stalls, access aisles, and driveway widths on the parcel are considered grandfathered. Therefore this review will address only the basic functionality of the parking for the subject parcel and not compliance with current standards.”
Hartley said circulation in and around the site is limited, and parking stalls can be difficult to access if there is snow accumulation or other parked cars inhibiting turning movements. But the spaces are accessible under certain circumstances, especially by those familiar with the site such as staff members.
“While inconvenient and less than ideal, the existing easement does not appear to pose any public safety issue, such as limiting emergency vehicle access,” he wrote, adding that Blue Willow should consult with a licensed engineer to determine the “feasibility” of the existing lower parking lot.
Hartley, in a previous review, indicated the site had the 12 parking spots required for the counseling service by city standards.
Wood said they have as many as 14 spots, two more than required, when another small, crescent-shaped driveway between the building and Winthrop Street is included as parking.
However, Kristen Collins, an attorney for the city, said at the Feb. 12 Planning Board meeting that board members also may consider, as part of their decision-making process, other standards in the ordinance, such as whether there is room within a parking lot for traffic to circulate safely.
Wood said she doesn’t believe all the neighborhood opposition to the counseling service locating there is really about parking. She said one opponent asked, at the Feb. 12 meeting, that if the counseling service is allowed to locate there, that it not put “mental health counseling” on their sign because it could lower property values in the neighborhood.
“The parking thing has completely been blown out of proportion,” Wood said. “It’s hard for me to sit back and believe, based on the comments individuals made, that this is not about the neighborhood’s fear in having people with mental health issues and substance abuse issues in their area.
“I believe, once we get in there and they realize these are just regular human beings, and there is nothing different about us than other businesses in the area, this is all going to blow over and no one will think twice about it.”
The proposal goes back to the Planning Board at its 7 p.m. meeting Tuesday, in council chambers at Augusta City Center.
Keith Edwards — 621-5647