2018-04-19 / Front Page

School with a vision

Ecology School plans met with questions
By Abigail Worthing
Staff Writer


Drew Dumsch, president and CEO of The Ecology School, in front of the view from River Bend Farm. The farm will be the new permanent home for the school, and will break ground on the project in the fall. (Abigail Worthing photo) Drew Dumsch, president and CEO of The Ecology School, in front of the view from River Bend Farm. The farm will be the new permanent home for the school, and will break ground on the project in the fall. (Abigail Worthing photo) SACO – As The Ecology School continues to work with the planning board in preparation for its fall groundbreaking, the school still faces questions and concerns from the community.

The Ecology School purchased the 105- acre River Bend Farm on Simpson Road in November 2017 for $1.3 million. Since 1999, the school rented space from the Ferry Beach Association for $200,000 for 22 weeks of programming during spring and fall for classes that attracts students from throughout the state and beyond.

The River Bend Farm project, slated to be the school’s permanent home, is estimated to cost $9 million, and is anticipated to be funded by a USDA Rural Development Community Facilities Loan Program, local commercial banks and a three-year capital campaign. In 2017, the program had 12,104 total participants, including onsite residential and day programs and offsite outreach. The school has projected that total participants will grow to 14,200 in 2020. The school also anticipates that the number of programming days will increase from 22 weeks in 2017 to 36 weeks in 2020.


Drew Dumsch, president and CEO of The Ecology School, explains a topography map of River Bend Farm, the future permanent home of the school. The farm was formerly home to the late Mary Merrill. The existing farmhouse will now be used as office and meeting spaces for the school. Dumsch was photographed in what was her living room. (Abigail Worthing photo) Drew Dumsch, president and CEO of The Ecology School, explains a topography map of River Bend Farm, the future permanent home of the school. The farm was formerly home to the late Mary Merrill. The existing farmhouse will now be used as office and meeting spaces for the school. Dumsch was photographed in what was her living room. (Abigail Worthing photo) The new campus at River Bend Farm will allow for the school to function on site year round, implementing programs such as overnight summer camps and snowshoeing expeditions in winter.

To better facilitate the exchange of information between the school and community, The Ecology School hosted an April 10 community forum at Saco City Hall to allow concerns to be addressed with the aid of a professional mediator. The mediator, Craig Freshley of Good Group Decisions Inc., worked throughout the meeting to ensure that it progressed smoothly and that all information was exchanged as clearly as possible.

The meeting began with refreshments and an opportunity for leaders of the Ecology School to mingle with the community. Displayed during that time were some site plans for the project.

The formal portion of the meeting began with a presentation from The Ecology School, starting with a speech by founder Drew Dumsch. Dumsch spoke with passion about the school and about the desired outcome the school would achieve within the community and students.

“We want to teach kids how to be respectful stewards of the earth,” Dumsch said, detailing the experience students will have at the school learning about agriculture and ecology at the new riverfront campus.

A contract zone was required for a school to be built on the property and originally granted in Feb. 1, 2016, and was amended Jan. 29. The amended contract zone included a definitive number of students, where there had formerly been ambiguity. The original contract zone stated there could be a maximum of 120 overnight students. However, there was no stipulation about day students. The amendment included an additional 120 day students, capping the total of students on campus at any time at 200.

According to the contract zone agreement, the property may have no more than two dormitories up to 9,000 square feet of floor area and no more than 35 feet higher than the highest point of the property. They dorms can also be no more than three stories tall.

The contract zone states that the commons can be no more than 7,000 square feet of floor area, and all other small buildings to support the school’s mission are subject to site plan review. All new structures must be built on the 8.75-acre parcel of land designated as “Residential/Farm Area,” as part of the conservation easement now held by Maine Farmland Trust.

Questions for the three Ecology School representatives ranged from practical to hypothetical. Peg Mills of Saco raised a question about the bathrooms in dorms, asking if they would be gendered or unisex. The team said the school would have a mix between gendered bathrooms as well as mixed gendered bathrooms with individual stalls. Dumsch said bathrooms would have interchangeable placards so genders could be flexible depending on the type of program the school was hosting at the time.

Saco resident Inga Browne, who lives on Simpson Road, had questions about the dorms, specifically plans for phase one and two dorms. The phase one dorm will have 120 beds and an additional 30 for chaperones and faculty, which is the cap for number of student beds possible on campus. Browne questioned the necessity of a second dorm if all beds would fit into the first dorm, and if the addition of the second dorm was indicative of Dumsch’s intention to expand the number of students the school would be able to accommodate overnight. Dumsch said the addition of a second dorm would be to alleviate potential congestion in the phase one dorm, and a portion of beds would be moved from one dorm to the other and the additional space would be used for leisure space for students.

Saco resident Deb Hilton had concerns about the project and the history of the school, firing questions about the budget, student numbers and revenue streams so fast that Freshley had to mediate to make sure every question was addressed and answered accordingly. Dumsch deflected questions about the budget with repeated offers to meet with Hilton in person and said he would be “happy to go over the budget and answer any questions” she or anyone else may have.

“I see a lot of familiar faces out here, we’ve all been through this before,” Dumsch said.

“Don’t put me off, another day, another time. You should have these answers like this,” Hilton said, snapping her fingers for effect.

Dumsch said he would have the numbers by the next planning board meeting, originally scheduled for April 17, but moved to May 1. When Freshley asked Hilton if she felt this was a sufficient response, she said that she wanted the numbers prior to the meeting to prepare questions. Dumsch consented to provide the numbers before the meeting, but provided no definitive statistics on the budget during the meeting.

Other concerns posed by the public included questions about parking spots, noise pollution, traffic patterns and farming techniques that will be adopted by the school. Dumsch and his team were able to provide easy answers to some questions. He said there would be 20 to 25 parking spots on site and there is a traffic study currently being performed by the city. Dumsch couldn’t provide clear answers for other questions. As for noise pollution, Dumsch assured those inquiring that the activities at night were all “quiet activities,” such as nocturnal animal studies.

Not all neighbors were appeased.

“Sound travels out here like water down a slide. People who haven’t lived out here don’t get it. We can hear the dogs from the kennel down the street out here at night,” said Sue Littlefield, Saco resident and neighbor to River Bend Farm, in a separate interview.

The question and answer period was scheduled from 6:30 to 8 p.m. and by the time the meeting was due to end, there were still about 10 residents who had questions for Ecology School representatives.

Browne said in a separate interview that while she felt having a moderator was helpful, the answers provided were not always direct.

“It felt like the answers were sometimes evasive and there were a lot of tangents that had nothing to do with the question being asked. It almost felt like they were trying to eat up time to avoid answering all the questions we had,” Browne said.

Jesse Thompson, chief engineer of the project and principal of Kaplan Thompson Architects, presented plans for the two proposed structures that will be added to existing buildings on the farm. The two new buildings consist of a dorm and a commons. The dorm will include three “house-sized” buildings connected by second floor hallways, and will house 120 student beds and an additional 30 beds for staff and volunteers. The commons will include a large dining area, commercial kitchen and smaller learning kitchen for students to experience preparing food that is grown on site.

The project is working toward achieving the Living Building Challenge, a national rigorous standard that ensures that all aspects of building are environmentally friendly.

According to the International Living Future Institute overview for the certifications, “The Living Building Challenge is a green building certification program and sustainable design framework that visualizes the ideal for the built environment.”

Thompson detailed some of the many stipulations that accompany certification, such as utilizing all renewable energy instead of fossil fuels, all materials sourced locally within 500 miles, and the inability to use common construction materials that are unfriendly to the environment, like PVC piping, unless there is absolutely no other alternative.

Landscape architect David Maynes spoke of preserving the “agrarian heritage” of the farm, and pointed out places on the maps for eventual solar panels. Maynes also detailed a proposed model of the Saco River watershed to be engraved into masonry outside the commons to “instill a larger idea into part of their experience,” and further their understanding of how a watershed flows.

In an interview at River Bend Farm DATE, Dumsch went over plans for the school and addressed disc ourse during the meeting.

“We’ve been through about 16 city meetings since the fall of 2016,” Dumsch said, “And the planning board is tough. But all these obstacles have made it a stronger, better project.”

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