2018-05-10 / Front Page

Board fends off conflict concerns

By Abigail Worthing
Staff Writer

SACO – A planning board meeting that was anticipated to be controversial became even more so over concerns of conflict of interest.

On the agenda for the Tuesday, May 1 meeting was the site plan review for The Ecology School, the $9 million project to be built at River Bend Farm at 184 Simpson Road in Saco. Numerous members of the Ecology School staff and supporters attended the meeting, as well as about 25 concerned residents and abutters.

City Planner Bob Hamblen began the regular portion of the meeting following a workshop period by briefing the public on an issue brought to the board’s attention by a property abutter.

The issue at hand is a potential conflict of interest concerning Alyssa Bouthot, the newest member of the Saco Planning Board. Bouthot is a real estate broker through Swan Agency Sotheby International, and is the listing agent for a property located at 144 Simpson Road, .4 miles away from the proposed Ecology School location at River Bend Farm. The property in question is a four-bedroom home on a 5.3-acre riverfront lot. The property was assessed in 2017 at a value of $440,100, and is priced for sale at $625,000.

There is concern that the sale of the property could be affected either favorably or adversely depending on the buyer’s opinion of such a project in close proximity to the listing, therefore leaving the potential for Bouthot to be affected monetarily.

When called upon for comment, Bouthot responded unwaveringly that she did not believe the conflict in question, raised by the abutter, existed. Bouthot also named the concerned abutter by name, a fact previously left out of the discussion. Bouthot referred to the letter from abutter Inga Browne as “raising a non-issue in a provocative way” and cautioned the board against taking action on the concerns of one person.

In response, planning board member Vangel Cotsis said while he has a great deal of respect for Bouthot, he would not classify the email as “provocative.”

In the email sent by Browne on April 17, she cites emails that were exchanged between Bouthot and Hamblin prior to her joining the planning board. In the email, Bouthot writes, “Is the (Ecology School) still moving forward on Simpson Road? … I’m preparing a listing for a property on that road and it will impact the marketing strategy I give them.” Browne obtained the email through a Freedom of Access Act request regarding the contract zone process with The Ecology School, which she and two other abutters filed in December 2017.

The email, Browne said, demonstrates that if the school affects her marketing strategy, it could also affect “any associated personal fi- nancial gains of losses for Ms. Bouthot, as the case may be.”

During the board discussion of the conflict, board member Peter Scontras said that it didn’t matter if only one person brought up the concern, because every person in the room was entitled to their own thoughts and opinions on the matter.

Bouthot said that as a broker, she is obligated to tell a buyer what she knows about the neighborhood, including any offers or plans for parcels of land. In Bouthot’s emailed response to the planning board, she referenced the Maine Municipal Association Manual for Local Planning Boards, specifically the “Conflict of Interest; Bias; Family Relationships” chapter, and states that she fails to see the conflict.

City Attorney Tim Murphy was included in the discussion both in emails and during the meeting. In an April 18 email, Murphy wrote that he sees no conflict and that “a knowledgeable agent needs to be aware of the neighborhood conditions, nothing more nothing less.”

During the meeting, Murphy said it was not his call to pass judgment on the subject and that it is the planning board that needs to be comfortable moving forward.

When a representative from The Ecology School was called upon for comment, Ecology School legal representative Peter Van Hemel said the school had no opposition to Bouthot participating in the continuing discussions.

The issue was subsequently put to a vote, and passed unanimously 5-0 that Bouthot would be allowed to continue participating in the discussions

In a separate interview, Hamblen said that while a conflict of interest doesn’t come up often, it does occur occasionally. When new members are approved they receive the previously mentioned manual, which breaks down how to respond to such a conflict.

When asked if he felt that Browne’s email was “provocative” Hamblen said that he did not and that it was possible that Bouthot’s comment may have come from her taking the accusation about the conflict of interest personally.

“It could have been about anyone. It’s important to recognize that some of the neighbors are upset. Sometimes being in public service, an occasion like this will come up. It’s important to develop a thick skin.”

As for the resolution, Hamblen is content with the outcome.

“I think the audience saw a nice demonstration for how to handle a conflict of interest. The board discussed it and then came to a conclusion together,” Hamblen said.

The Ecology School will continue the process of site plan review with a site walk planned for May 22, rescheduled from the original May 15 date.

Contact Staff Writer Abigail Worthing at news@inthecourier.com.

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