VFW wanted Group Home building; city to consider

Veterans group has been unjustly turned away, reps say
By Ethan Andrews | Feb 16, 2017
Photo by: Ethan Andrews Belfast VFW representatives say they made multiple cash offers for this Airport Road building, one of the major assets of the now defunct Group Home Foundation. The building has since been rented to Tidewater Oil.

Belfast — Representatives of the Belfast Veterans of Foreign Wars post say they have tried to buy a Group Home building but have been ignored, and possibly blocked.

Steve Brown of Randall Collins VFW Post 3108 said the organization has been looking to move to a larger space with better handicapped accessibility. The post's headquarters on Field Street is 5,000 square feet split between two floors.

"Our canteen's upstairs," Brown said. "A lot of our veterans can't come or won't come because they don't want to climb stairs."

He estimated the Group Home Foundation building on Airport Road has about twice the square footage, all at street level and handicapped accessible.

James Roberts, commander of the Belfast VFW post said the organization offered a representative of Group Home Foundation $80,000 for 17 Airport Road. Roberts said the amount would have been enough to pay off a Farmers Home Administration (USDA) mortgage loan to Group Home Foundation.

The property was last assessed by the city at $635,100.

Roberts said he never heard back. The Republican Journal was not immediately able to reach Group Home Foundation representatives for comment.

Roberts later learned that part of the building had been rented to Tidewater Oil. In response, VFW upped its offer to $220,000, but again got no reply, Roberts said.

"We made him a concrete, solid, let's move in tomorrow offer," he said. "If they could negotiate with the lien holders on Tidewater's behalf, why couldn't they negotiate on our behalf?"

Meanwhile, interactions between VFW representatives and city officials left Roberts wondering if the city was trying to block the organization from moving to the business park. Officials mentioned concerns about jobs that would be created by VFW at the new location, which Roberts addressed in a letter to the city.

City Planner Wayne Marshall said he got the letter about 10 days ago and had not brought it to the City Council but expected to soon.

The city would stand to gain if the property were kept on the tax rolls rather than going to the tax-exempt VFW. Belfast Soup Kitchen, another tax-exempt entity, is negotiating with VFW to buy its Field Street building should the post move, according to Mary Brand, president of the soup kitchen's board of directors, which would mean a net loss of property taxes for the city.

But Marshall said the main issue is zoning.

The business park was created by the city in the 1980s to encourage manufacturing at a time when downtown factories were closing. While the businesses that operate in the park typically own their lots, the city holds covenants to retain control over how the park is used.

Group Home Foundation opened its Airport Road building as a light manufacturing business called Belfast Industries, a forerunner to the organization's military contract garment business Little River Apparel.

The list of allowed uses for business park properties was expanded just over a decade ago to include offices and sales of products manufactured within the park. In 2014, the council tweaked it again to allow Maine Maritime Products to open a small takeout operation, Off the Hook Shuckin' Shack.

Marshall said the current code doesn't speak to social organizations like the VFW as being allowed uses in the business park.

Group Home Foundation had moved its manufacturing to the south end of the business park and was running its day program for people with intellectual disabilities out of the Airport Road building before the organization went under last year. Marshall said the change of use was overlooked by the city because Group Home's manufacturing was still happening within the business park.

"We looked at it as being part of the whole, instead of being this building and that building," he said.

Marshall said he plans to bring the VFW's proposal before the council soon but does not plan to give a recommendation about what should happen.

"They'll have to look at appropriate uses to this building and whether they're consistent with the uses the park has been advertised for," he said. "That will be their call."

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