2018-06-07 / Front Page

Lawyer files complaints about Saco Ecology School

By Abigail Worthing
Staff Writer

SACO – Four Saco residents have filed two letters of concern to the planning board regarding what they believe is a failure in protocol.

The residents, Henry Beeuwkes, Susan Littlefield, Inga Browne and Elizabeth DeSimone, filed the letters through their attorney, John Bannon of Murray, Plumb and Murray, and state concerns with the handling of the site plan review of The Ecology School. Beeuwkes, Littlefield and Browne all reside on Simpson Road, while former city councilor DeSimone lives on Ferry Road. The project at River Bend Farm on Simpson Road is projected to cost $9 million and includes a 7,000-square-foot commons and three 4,500-square-foot connected dorm buildings. It is in the final stages of the process of site plan review and a public site plan walk was held May 22.

The two letters of concern, submitted to the planning board on May 30, will be discussed as part of the Tuesday, June 5 planning board meeting, after the Courier deadline.

Of concerns raised is that the financial statement letter by The Ecology School from Saco and Biddeford Savings Institution does not comply with standards set in the city’s subdivision regulation section. This portion of the regulation states that any site plan approval requires a letter from a financial institution that affirms the intent to fund the project and must contain a commitment, a specified amount of funds, and the specific purpose the funds will be used for. According to the letter filed on behalf of the residents, the letter provided from Saco and Biddeford Savings Institution is too vague to meet the standards, as it states confirmation that the school has requested funds, but does not declare intent to fund. According to an April 25 letter from the bank, based on the financial condition of the school and its long term plan, the bank would be “inclined to extend them construction financing for this project” but goes on to clarify that “this letter does not constitute an offer, agreement or commitment to lend.”

Another concern addresses Saco’s regulation of subdivisions, section 8.7.2 in the city ordinance. The school must provide financial proof that it will be able to “construct, operate and maintain all aspects of the development,” putting special emphasis on “operate” and “maintain.”

The letter of concern states it would be “pointless (and even irresponsible) for the planning board to approve substantial land alteration and construction of large, special-purpose buildings – no matter how attractive they may be – without requiring The Ecology School to provide proof that it has the financial capacity actually to operate and maintain a school at 184 Simpson Road.”

The second letter of concern, a more general complaint, filed on behalf of the same four residents takes aim at The Ecology School’s perceived failure to meet submission deadlines prior to meetings. During the May 1 planning board meeting, Bannon objected to the delayed submission of materials by the school, citing the site plan application form where it states “Applicants must submit their materials by 4:30 p.m. three weeks prior to the scheduled meeting for placement on the board’s agenda.” The letter maintains that as of the letter’s date, May 30, the only new information provided by the school for the Tuesday, June 5 scheduled meeting is the hydrogeological study, filed May 15, which was more than three weeks prior to the scheduled meeting date. However, by site plan application standards, any other materials submitted would classify as late and be ineligible for discussion during the June 5 meeting. The letter serves as an objection on behalf of the residents to discussion of any materials received after the deadline.

The letter also takes aim at the planning board for allowing submissions to take place so close to the meeting date, stating that it “frustrates the purpose of a filing deadline,” which is to allow board members and the public time to process and form questions and comments about the project prior to meetings. In this case, The Ecology School filed new materials with the planning board on May 31 for a June 5 meeting, allowing the public and the board five days to review paperwork, which the letter of concern believes is insufficient for full comprehension. Of the 502 pages in the planning board packet for the June 5 meeting, 287 are related to the Ecology School.

“The only ones who benefit from this are the applicants. It’s not benefiting the city to have these proposals pushed through so fast,” said Inga Browne in a June 4 interview.

Part of the school’s May 31 submission of materials from project manager John Mahoney is a narrative response to the questions and concerns from the May 1 meeting. It responds to 16 concerns and questions raised during the meeting and both concerns cited in the two letters are addressed by the school. In response to the concern raised during the meeting that the financial capacity letter is inadequate, the school responds that the letter meets the terms of the contract zone, and is sufficient. As for the three-week submission deadline, the school asserts that the deadline is for the initial deadline (as opposed to every deadline), which the applicant has met.

The school responded to a request for comment made Tuesday, June 5, with the following statement by Community Relations Coordinator Caitlin Brooke: “The Ecology School has provided all of the documentation requested and required by the city of Saco.”

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

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