2018-06-14 / Front Page

Officials: Ecology School plan still not good enough

Staff Writer
By Abigail Worthing

SACO – For the second time the planning board has tabled approval of the site plan for The Ecology School following a tumultuous meeting.

The project, a $9 million school that will be built at River Bend Farm on Simpson Road, was first presented to the planning board on May 1, where approval was tabled due a need for both more information from The Ecology School and a site walk on the property. The planning board chose to table approval of the plan again following concerns about the school’s traffic study.

The school was granted a contract zone in November 2015 and a two-year extension on Jan. 29 after a prolonged sale process caused the contract zone to age out. Principal Landscape Architect Todd Richardson lead the May 22 site walk, which allowed both the planning board and the public the opportunity to view the plans as laid out on the property. During the Tuesday, June 5 meeting, school officials came prepared with a 287 page document that attempted to fulfill the information requested made during the May 1 meeting.

As part of the contract zone agreement, a walking trail will be built along Stackpole Creek. The trail, proposed to be called the Mary Merrill Trail to commemorate the late owner of River Bend Farm, would form a loop with the entrance and exit on the property. Project planners received guidance from Saco Bay Trails to plan it and said they didn’t believe it needed a parking area. The contact zone stipulates that there can be no parking on Simpson Road for the trail, so without parking provided, all traffic for the trail would have to be either on foot or by bike.

Planning board member Peter Scontras said he was concerned because biking down Simpson Road is dangerous and it would be easy to put parking on the property, near the entrance of the trail. Drew Dumsch, executive director for The Ecology School, said he doesn’t believe a parking lot is necessary.

“It can be just a gravel patch. I don’t see what the resistance is, it’s almost like it’s a will power thing,” Scontras said, referring to Dumsch’s refusal to consider parking. “It’s the same thing, time and time again, and it’s starting to grate on the planning board.”

A letter filed by attorney John Bannon of Murray, Plumb and Murray on behalf of four residents called into question the sufficiency of the financial support letter filed by The Ecology School from Saco and Biddeford Savings Institution. The letter confirms that the school has requested financing and that the bank would “be inclined to extend them construction financing for this project,” however Bannon argues that this is to vague, as under section 8.7 of the City’s Subdivision Regulations there must be a “commitment to provide a specified amount of funds.” During the meeting, Ecology School attorney Philip Saucier said the letter was both sufficient and a routine letter for a process such as this. Scontras said the bank’s letter to was not the level of support that he was looking for, and would like to see a more detailed and finite letter prior to approval of the project.

In an email dated June 7, after the meeting, from City Attorney Tim Murphy to City Planner Bob Hamblen, Murphy writes that the Saco and Biddeford Savings letter is not sufficient, stating, “It makes no promise to fund, and it shares no background that could offer comfort that this applicant is adequately capitalized or funded such to complete such a large scale project.” He added that the letter only expresses interest, rather than promising funds, and that no court would find fault in the planning board expecting more evidence.

“In this light, you can see it’s entirely reasonable to conclude that the bank’s April 25, 2018 letter actually offers no guidance to the question: How does a small nonprofit afford such a project, can they pull it off successfully?” Murphy writes.

Murphy maintains that judgment rests with the planning board.

One of the concerns raised during the May 1 meeting was the need for a traffic study. Bill Bray, traffic consultant with Traffic Solutions, obtained by The Ecology School, discussed traffic patterns on Simpson Road and the myriad of ways the school intends to offset the impact its presence will have. Proposed solutions include staggering arrival times of students into “waves,” encouraging public transportation, ride sharing, cycling to and from the campus and minimized package deliveries.

A concern raised by the planning board and abutters is the turning radius of a large delivery truck, school bus or motor coach turning into Simpson Road from Buxton Road, as well as entering and exiting the Simpson Road entrance to the school. There is no left turn only lane on Buxton Road onto Simpson Road, leading to concerns about how traffic will be impacted as more vehicles turn onto the road.

Abutter Sue Littlefield submitted a letter to the planning board for the June 5 meeting about a blind spot at the proposed entrance of the school and an incident she witnessed during the first day The Ecology School hosted children at its new location. In the letter, Littlefield details how a school bus pulled to the right of the road to enable the bus to make the turn into the school and how a car, which incorrectly assumed that the bus was allowing it to pass, was left in the middle of the two lanes as the bus began to turn. Littlefield said this would be disastrous if there had been a car coming in the opposite direction, as there is a blind spot at the top of the hill. Littlefield acknowledges that the entrance will be widened, but is concerned about the curve and what she maintains is frequent speeding along Simpson Road.

Diane Morabito, traffic engineer for Maine Traffic Resources who works with the city, said she was concerned by Bray’s assertion that there was a clear turning radius onto Simpson Road and into the driveway of the property. During the public comment portion of the meeting, abutter Margaret Mills told the planning board that the traffic study may be incorrect, as Bray used information from the Maine Department of Transportation from 2014 to 2016, and during those years Simpson Road was closed to nonlocal traffic due to construction on Stackpole Bridge.

Abutter Inga Browne said she thinks the late posting of materials prior to meetings doesn’t give the planning board or residents a chance to fully absorb information. The packet for the June 5 meeting was made available online on Friday, June 1.

“Citizens are trying to understand what is going on. I rely on (the planning board) to process and synthesize the information for myself, my neighborhood and the city of Saco,” Browne said. “This whole process is sloppy.”

Browne went on to detail other concerns about the project, such as placement of evacuation sites and the need to wear blaze orange during fall, as hunting takes place on Simpson Road. Browne also called attention to the fact that a May 31 memo put out by Project Manager John Mahoney stated the school has no immediate plans to hire a farm manager. However, the traffic study compiled by Bray cites a farm manager and six farm hands.

Abutter Deb Hilton brought up financial records she compiled. Dumsch has refused to provide what he argued was “proprietary financial information.” Hilton said she is concerned with the lack of transparency of the school and worries the traffic study may not be complete if Bray is relying solely on information provided by the school.

“I have been sued by them,” Hilton said. “We cannot trust them to provide information. We’re reasonable people. Tell us and we’ll shut up.”

Hilton was one of three Saco Valley Land Trust members to be named personally in a lawsuit filed by Tom Merrill and The Ecology School regarding the conservation easement granted on River Bend Farm by Mary Merrill. In 1998, Mary Merrill placed River Bend Farm under a conservation easement with the trust to prevent commercial development on the property. When Saco Valley Land Trust argued that Tom Merrill’s sale of the property to The Ecology School, finalized in Nov. 2017 for $1.3 million, violated the easement, Merrill and The Ecology School filed a lawsuit against the trust, arguing that the because the school was a nonprofit, it did not classify as a commercial development.

Jesse Thompson, principal engineer for The Ecology School, aired the organization’s grievances about rigorous scrutiny of the project.

“We have done everything you’re asking for. We’re just asking for fairness. We meet a level and it gets raised again,” Thompson said. “Let’s be real, this is about seven angry neighbors.”

Browne, when given another opportunity to speak, reminded those gathered that the planning board was clear that the process would be “rigorous and thorough,” and that is all those speaking out are asking for.

“This farm has been around since 1794. This is a very big change, and once it is changed, it is changed forever,” Browne said. “We’ve been told, ‘change is hard, get over it.’ The process needs to be respectful and I find being called an ‘angry neighbor’ very distasteful.”

“I’m not angry. I’m not even 100 percent against it. You’re well paid for your patience,” said Mills, addressing the planning board. “I can deal with change, I’m just not comfortable with the process.”

At the conclusion of the meeting, the issue was tabled until more information regarding the traffic study and other questions raised during the meeting were answered. Dumsch requested that the planning board give all information requests in writing to allow the school to provide answers. As of press time, a date for the next Ecology School presentation has not been set.

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