2018-05-31 / Front Page

Ecology School sitewalk well-attended

By Abigail Worthing
Staff Writer

Todd Richardson, landscape architect for The Ecology School, points out the location of the dormitories on a map of the proposed layout of the school’s new campus at River Bend Farm on Simpson Road. (Abigail Worthing photo) Todd Richardson, landscape architect for The Ecology School, points out the location of the dormitories on a map of the proposed layout of the school’s new campus at River Bend Farm on Simpson Road. (Abigail Worthing photo) SACO – The Ecology School hosted both residents and the Saco Planning Board at its new home at River Bend Farm on Simpson Road for an informational site walk last week.

The walk, held Tuesday, May 22, served as part of the site plan review process prior to the build of the school, a $9 million project. Twentyeight people attended the detailed walk through the property, including planning board members, Ecology School board members and staff, local residents and abutters.

The tour of the property was led by Todd Richardson, principal landscape architect for the project. With map in hand, he led the group, armed with umbrellas and rain jackets, through the drizzle. The tour began with a trek from the farmhouse, one of the original buildings on the property and one that will remain relatively untouched – aside from potential winterizing –to the entrance to the property on Simpson Road. Richardson detailed the expansion of the existing dirt driveway to accommodate the school, with civil engineer John Mahoney demonstrating the parameters of pavement and sign placement. This would become a recurring activity throughout the walk, with Richardson explaining the plan, then Mahoney making his way through mud and tall grasses to provide a visual representation.

While at the mouth of the property, Richardson said that the tree line, a distinct row that runs parallel to the current driveway, would remain untouched by the project. However, a fence that runs along the street side of the property will have to be pulled back to accommodate the newly expanded entrance. The driveway will also feature two widened areas, referred to as “pull outs,” which will allow cars to pass each other.

During the walk along the driveway, City Planner Bob Hamblen raised a question about the “physical plans” to a small pond in the field between Simpson Road and the farmhouse, to which Richardson replied that it would remain as is.

“There will maybe just be kids there studying frogs, but there will be no physical changes,” Richardson said.

Upon returning to the central area of the farm, Richardson detailed where the school will place a circular drop off area for parents, which will run through the current horse paddocks on the property. In the clearing, Richardson detailed where the Commons will be, a 7,000-square-foot building that will house a dining area, commercial kitchen and small teaching kitchen for students.

“Our team has worked hard to preserve the existing trees and work with the landscape,” Richardson said.

When detailing the resources and landscape of the farm, Ecology School Executive Director Drew Dumsch spoke about the small cemetery that lies a short distance beyond the tree line near the proposed placement of the three connected dormitory buildings, each measuring no more than 4,500 square feet and that will cumulatively house the 120 overnight students. Dumsch said he has spoken with the Maine Old Cemetery Association to preserve the small graveyard.

During the walk to the field that will house the proposed dormitories and commons, Lucy Gorham and her cousin Bob Gorham spoke about the late Mary Merrill, who owned River Bend Farm until her death in 2005. Lucy Gorham was a long-time friend and employee of Merrill, and was at the tour as a private resident.

“I had to see what was going on,” Lucy Gorham said. “It wasn’t what she wanted, but there’s nothing we can do about that now.”

“Well, at least it’s not a golf course,” Bob Gorham said.

Merrill left the property under a conservation easement prior to her death with Saco Valley Land Trust, which would prevent commercial development on the property. When Merrill’s nephew, Thomas Merrill inherited the farm and when he decided to sell the property to The Ecology School, the Saco Valley Land Trust argued that such a sale was in violation of the easement. Thomas Merrill asserted that because the school was a nonprofit organization, it did not classify as “commercial.” When an agreement could not be reached, Thomas Merrill filed a lawsuit in 2016 against the trust and won the case in summary judgment in 2017. The Ecology School finalized the sale of the property in November 2017 for $1.3 million. The easement has since been transferred to Maine Farmland Trust. While the school has been granted a contract zone agreement through the city, select abutters and friends of the late Mary Merrill remain outspoken against the project, maintaining that this was not conducive with the original easement.

In the clearing, Richardson detailed the layout of the dormitories, as well as pointed out where a second dormitory would be housed, should the school decide to expand.

When pausing for questions, Richardson joked, “I suspect there will be fewer and fewer questions as the rain continues.”

Planning Board member Rene Ittenbach asked about the implementation of guardrails along the pullouts to prevent cars from sliding into the trees during inclement weather. Fellow planning board member Don Girouard suggested the possibility of large planters to serve as a more “aesthetically friendly” solution, to which Mahoney replied that it was something they would consider. Hamblen brought up the subject of “dark sky compliance,” and was assured by both Richardson and Dumsch that all lighting would be at the lowest level, for safety only.

The planning board will meet and discuss information from the site walk at its next meeting at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 5.

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

Next meeting

The Saco Planning Board will meet to discuss the site walk of River Bend Farm – future site of The Ecology School – at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 5 at Saco City Hall. The meeting is open to the public.

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