2018-04-19 / Editorial

Ecology School: More going on in background than appears

More information than previously reported exists regarding the complexity and controversy surrounding The Ecology School’s institutional development of River Bend Farm at 184 Simpson Road in Saco.

A look at past events is required, as is as an update on most recent developments, including The Ecology School’s recent community meeting held at Saco City Hall on April 10.

At the center of all the facts outlined in this letter is the following simple, indisputable idea: Saco residents have a right to expect transparent and fair government from the professional, paid staff charged with conducting the people’s business.

A December 2017 request filed by two Saco residents and myself under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act reveals that Saco city staff in 2016 suppressed and omitted the critical and well-defined concerns of a planning board member regarding total student numbers permitted on the school campus, a project only made possible via an unprecedented school contract zone award in a C-1 conservation zone.

Through the FOAA, residents reviewed approximately 1,300 emails related to internal city staff communications, as well as city council email.

In fact, the FOAA request continues to remain incomplete due to the city administrator’s excuse that the request is “too large” and needs an exact target.

If one contract zone process and corresponding communications are too unwieldy for resident review, this raises entirely separate questions of deep concern.

Overuse of contract zones continues to be a scourge in the city and results in officials “flying a plane while they’re building it.” The result is a checkerboard zoning profile of Saco, with special interests winning the game through the erratic and ineffective complaint-based model for monitoring contract zone compliance.

In late 2017, the planning board approved a very definitive “120 weekly students” for The Ecology School, but the wording, upon post-council approval on Feb. 1, 2016, raised questions from planning board member Don Girouard, as it leaves unspecified the School’s allotment of day students and residential students.

School officials, despite the omnipresent guidance of their very capable legal team, readily signed the vaguely worded contract zone agreement, a fact that deserves more analysis in a later paragraph.

Of greatest concern, email documentation strongly suggests that city staff worked in tandem with Ecology School officials to circumvent public knowledge of the planning board member’s concerns on student numbers. (Sources: planning board Girouard memo to Bob Hamblen March 2, 2016; Hamblen email to K. Sutherland March 4, 2016.)

City Planner Bob Hamblen, in response to planning board member Don Girouard’s concern of total student numbers permitted on the proposed River Bend campus, writes on March 4, 2016, to City Administrator Kevin Sutherland, “I can toss this in Drew’s (Drew Dumsch, Ecology School executive director) lap and ask that he anticipate the issue come site plan review time … I spoke with the mayor today, and he is convinced 120 was approved, another 150 was not. Any thought on how we address this, and, whether sooner or later?”

The answer is definitely “later,” as in almost two years, when city officials sensed a strategic and timely opening to tighten the contract zone agreement when The Ecology School had to apply in late 2017 for a contract zone extension for more time. As local news articles have already reported, a protracted lawsuit initiated by the owners of the farm and the school against The Saco Valley Land Trust ensued for two years due to the trust’s adamant opposition to the institutional development of the property per the constraints of the original conservation easement granted by Mary D. Merrill in 1998.

Mr. Hamblen, as outlined in his email to the city administrator, feels confident the city can simply fall back on one Jan. 14, 2016, letter from the school that pinpoints its desire to have 150 day students and 150 residential students. (If you’re still reading this long letter, you may well be asking yourself why the school didn’t advocate more clearly or frequently for more clear limits or caps for its programs.)

To be clear, the record shows no planning board or council discussion of 150 day and 150 (or even 120) overnight students, and no related amendment requests gained any traction or approval in any meeting at any time.

In late December 2017 and January 2018, the contract zone extension request required a cycle of four council meetings, with an additional planning board meeting on Jan. 23, 2018, per City Attorney Tim Murphy’s recommendation.

The public record during this time-period swells with letters, emails and public hearing testimony from many Simpson Road neighbors thirsty for more clarification on total student numbers. Anyone can simply watch the city website video of the Jan. 16, 2018, council public hearing to get a better sense of the confusion surrounding the school’s full intentions for the property and targeted number of students.

And yet, during the January cycle of meetings, city officials, city councilors and planning board members remain entirely and unequivocally silent on student numbers, until one week before the final vote on Jan. 29, 2018, when Councilor Nathan Johnston proposes an amendment to once and for all clarify the total number of day student and residential student numbers.

As the FOAA request substantiates, last minute deals on student numbers (and other items) were brokered between the school’s executive director and Councilor Alan Minthorn (who, the record shows, began the barter process on his private email account), and hours before the final vote, Mr. Dumsch states in an email to Councilor Minthorn the following about student number caps:

“I’m truly concerned that a definitive bed count in addition to program number limits really will hurt us during the design phase.”

No wonder the school and its attorneys were so fond of the original 2016 vaguely worded contract zone agreement, with its loophole on unspecified day-student numbers.

Much like the loose and hard-to-enforce quotas on student numbers the Ecology School has with its landlord at Ferry Beach Park Association, school officials were seeking ambiguity and leeway in their arrangements at River Bend Farm, and have a proven track record of leveraging their needs in any wording that remains unspecific or open to interpretation.

While city officials will defend their actions in subverting student numbers as simple administrative errors or sloppy process due to the fast-paced nature of business at city hall, the record clearly shows otherwise.

Moreover, the recent “parting-of-ways” with the city’s economic development director is symptomatic of a city hall that repeatedly and over time condoned brazen and questionable conduct, which leaves gaping questions around the professionalism and integrity of those in leadership positions at city hall. See the recent study “How One Bad Employee Can Corrupt a Whole Team,” published by Will Gerken of the Gatton College of Business and Economics at The University of Kentucky.

While personnel files must remain private, the city’s tightly controlled narrative on Bill Mann’s departure conveniently serves more as an act of self-preservation and protection than simple adherence to employee policies.

Facts gleaned through the FOAA request illustrate the manner in which the former economic development director – often with wider city staff knowledge and participation – gave preferential treatment and insider information to The Ecology School, leveraging its contract zone application in ways that made any opposing voices look uninformed and two steps behind the turnip truck.

This is not what economic development looks like, but rather a systemic favoritism embedded in city culture that creates distorted winners and losers.

The FOAA request also reveals how letters, memos, handouts or emails from those opposed to the school’s development of River Bend Farm were passed back and forth between the school and city staff, creating an incestuous environment of privileged information and power.

As was shown with his inappropriate shielding and denial of access to applicants’ financial records, the former economic development director’s private banking background was an ill fit for a municipal and public position, and Saco must ensure that current and future candidates receive professional training in municipal government protocols if required.

Cultivated favoritism leads to erroneously deserved power grabs, and this is more true than ever in the manner that Ecology School officials, board members and supporters have worked to quell neighborhood conveniently labeled “NIMBY” opposition to the special interest contract zone and institutional development of the conserved farm land.

The school’s plans for the property would have never gotten a thumbs up from the farm’s original owner, Mary D. Merrill, and to name any “parks” or walking paths at River Bend Farm in Ms. Merrill’s name – as Councilor Minthorn proposed in a Jan. 25, 2018, email to Mr. Dumsch – is a gross misuse of her name and legacy, more akin to propaganda.

And there’s more to be said about residents who dare speak out against this project. Preceding the final council contract zone agreement vote in 2016, the Ecology School executive director complains in a Jan. 28, 2016, email to a city councilor that Simpson Road neighbors, the Saco Valley Land Trust, and the town of Buxton are “intimidating” the city council by utilizing their freedom of speech in writing public letters to oppose the project. Mr. Dumsch writes the following to the councilor: “Attached are four very recent documents that show the level of overwrought opposition that we now face from a handful of folks leading up to the Saco City Council meeting this Monday. Is the intent to intimidate the city council into a “no” vote?”

This conflation of democratic process with intimidation speaks for itself.

Schools, whether they be traditional, private or niche-market, create long-term impact and volume on neighborhoods, and The Ecology School is no different, even with its laudable environmental focus.

Comparing noise and traffic issues between the school’s current rented location at Ferry Beach Association off of busy Route 9 with that of the C-1 Conservation Zone environment of Simpson Road is an apples and oranges methodology, and several of the well-meaning supporters of the school fail to recognize the stark differences of an expansive, rural environment versus the densely developed, noise-buffered profile of Ferry Road and Seaside Avenue. Sound moves across an open field like water down a slide.

In 2016, a Saco resident wrote the following in a public letter to the city in opposition to the school’s contract zone: “As the primary access route for the school from Route 112 degrades to due traffic density, vehicle traffic will increase from the opposite direction, also. This traffic would affect the Simpson Road coming from Buxton. Placing such a formidable tax-exempt business in such an isolated location promises increased burden on the city and resulting in only a small, if any, benefit to Saco’s tax payers…It is easy to be generous when evaluating an appealing project in isolation. Being forced to raise the mil rate is much more difficult.“

The signature on the letter is Marston Lovell, 51 Nott St., current mayor of Saco.

At the recent community meeting, serious concerns were laid bare again as Mr. Dumsch mostly dodged, weaved and circumvented answers to questions asked by neighbors and abutters, despite the best efforts of the hired facilitator to tease out the answers. It appears running down the clock is used in sports as well as those in the hot seat at city meetings.

Mr. Dumsch flatly refused to comment on the school’s budget or future plans for expansion to support the School’s $7 to $10 million investment in the River Bend Farm property, and went on the record to say that the school would remove some beds from the first dorm (which will begin housing all of the 150 total approved beds) and place them in the second dorm when this expansion occurs in phase II which would ultimately result in the approved 150 beds total being spread across two approved dorm buildings.

As the FOAA request substantiates via emails from Saco Fire Department personnel, perhaps more city officials and councilors should speak with the school’s current landlord, Ferry Beach Park Association, to better understand the school’s track record of abiding by student number limits and the safe and proper placement of beds.

Let the record of this public letter show that the school instead will return to the Saco City Council seeking an additional amendment for more students as it grows overall and cultivates relationships with other institutions such as the University of New England. The Ecology School only needs to seek simple council approval for numbers above the current 150 residential beds and 120 day students limits, with a 200 body total on the property at any given time, to be monitored using a complex quarterly reporting system submitted to the city by Ecology School officials.

As the site plan review process soon commences for this project on May 1, the Saco Planning Board must not remain mum on current or future student numbers and their impact, as they did at the Jan. 23 public hearing and discussion. The city planner, slated to retire in June, must not cut corners or deviate from city scheduling procedures or site plan protocols in his final few months on the job, as he continues to advocate behind the scenes on behalf of the school, frustrated by resident opposition. The school’s continued addition of extra small buildings or even yurts to the site plans, as well as a farm manager to grow food on the property for school purchase, requires careful and deliberative eyes to keep tabs on a project that continues to creep forward in numbers, size and traffic.

A rigorous and thorough site plan review process with all voices receiving fair and balanced consideration must be achieved.

About the authors

Inga Sandvoss Browne lives on Simpson Road in Saco and is a neighbor to River Bend Farm, where The Ecology School plans a $9 million educational development. Coauthor of this opinion column is Ferry Road resident Elizabeth DeSimone. The Ecology School has been invited by the Courier to contribute a guest column for a future edition of the newspaper.

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