2018-07-12 / Front Page

Ecology School lawsuit

Litigation continues with landlord while school looks ahead
By Abigail Worthing Staff Writer

SACO – Although The Ecology School recently received planning board approval to build a new campus on Simpson Road, the school is still embroiled in a lawsuit with current landlords, The Ferry Beach Park Association.

The Ecology School is suing the association, seeking damages for allegations of defamation and interference with contractual obligations, and is requesting $80,000 in relief from the Ferry Beach Park Association for damages caused. Originally called Ferry Beach Ecology School, it has leased space from the association since 1998 and in spring and fall it provides day and overnight programs for students. The school has since purchased River Bend Farm on Simpson Road and got planning board approval on June 19 to build a $9 million campus.

In the complaint, filed March 19 in York County Superior Court, The Ecology School alleges that the problems between the two organizations began with the hiring of current Executive Director Cathy Stackpole and a lease extension discussion that began in November 2012 and ended in arbitration in 2013. The suit alleges that since arbitration, Ferry Beach Park Association has interpreted provisions of the lease agreement to make daily operations difficult for the school. The Ferry Beach Park Association, however, denies the allegations and has stated in a June 4 response that it has interpreted the lease to ensure safety of guests.

According to a letter from Stackpole to Executive Director Drew Dumsch and board President Mary Martin dated May 20, 2016, Stackpole alleges that throughout her time at Ferry Beach Park Association there have been multiple incidents, which Stackpole cites with dates, where beds were in places not agreed upon by the lease, were blocking egress exits, or were overcrowding occupancy limits within rooms. The letter served as a notification for the school that there would no longer be sleeping arrangements permitted on the first floor of Rowland Hall, and that further violations from the school would result in eviction. Also included in the letter was a statement from the Ferry Beach Association’s insurance company, Church Mutual, that violations against the local code would put the association’s coverage at risk.

The association denies that Stackpole deteriorated the relationship, and instead states that Stackpole aimed to improve facilities and safety regulations. The Ecology School alleges that because of arbitration, the association has chosen to not extend the lease beyond the end of 2018, which the association affirms is true, but denies that it has to do with arbitration.

Documents detail a May 2016 incident where a routine walkthrough by Saco Fire Department officials revealed issues with overcrowding, specifically blocking fire panels and emergency exits as well as concerns involving occupancy limit. Following further inspections from Code Enforcement Officer Dick Lambert, Assistant Code Enforcement Officer David Twomey and Deputy Fire Chief David Pendleton, a recommendation was made to cease the allowance of sleeping arrangements on the first floor of the dormitory building, Rowland Hall, which barred The Ecology School from completing a contract with its “most important and largest client,” the Winthrop L Chenery Middle School from Belmont, Massachusetts, allegedly costing The Ecology School program fees of $81,600. In the lawsuit, The Ecology School alleges that it was left out of discussions about safety hazards and assigns blame to the association for the issues with overcrowding, stating the school was following allowances within the lease agreement. Without adequate sleeping arrangements, students from Chenery Middle School were forced to return to Massachusetts. Furthermore, the school alleges that following the incident, the Ferry Beach Park Association posted false information about the matter on social media and was therefore opened to negative press, which the school believes has damaged its reputation.

An account of the incident was published on May 23, 2016 on Wickedlocal.com by Joanna Tzouvelis titled, “Fifth-grade Ferry Beach trip cut short.” According to the post, the trip was to be the 12th annual for Chenery Middle School and students and parents alike were disappointed by the sudden turn of events, alleging that students were not informed that they would be returning home until halfway through the day.

The Ferry Beach Park Association, in response to the claims, alleges that the problem between the two organizations lies within a lack of information provided by the school.

The association claims that The Ecology School would regularly refuse to provide complete guest lists for programs or sleeping arrangements in spaces that were inconsistent with the lease, such as the auditorium. The association also claims that there had been occasions when The Ecology School had to be asked to cease moving and adding beds to non-sleeping areas of the campus. According to documents, The Ferry Beach Park Association states that there were safety concerns prior to the Chenery Middle School incident, specifically electrical problems and creating unsafe environments with space heaters. As for inspections by Saco Fire Department and code enforcement officials, while The Ecology School alleges that they should have been notified and involved in such proceedings, the association denies that claim, adding that school officials are not entitled to attend such a walkthrough, as it is a tenant and not an owner of the property. The association argues that while The Ecology School uses occupancy limits in its complaint, the limits pertain to how many people may be in a room, not how many may sleep in the room. The association denies all allegations of defamation and interference with contractual regulations.

In a report from the Ferry Beach Park Association, a five-year lease agreement signed in 2009 had the school paying $6,050 in rent weekly. However, the association reevaluated the fair-share cost of The Ecology School conducting business, including its use of utilities and maintenance, and concluded it should pay $16,000 weekly. In a letter sent Nov. 15, 2012 to Dumsch and Martin, the Ferry Beach Park Association informed the school of the increased operation amount. According to the letter, the association reports that it was aware that an increase from $6,050 to $16,000 was significant, so it was willing to offer a 7 percent increase to $6,474 for 18 months so the two organizations could negotiate a fair price. On Dec. 12, the Ferry Beach Park Association received a letter from the school rejecting the 18-month offer, adding that the only item of discussion to consider would be the fair market rental rate for the 2014-2018 lease extension. The association responded Jan. 9, 2013 with an email requesting a meeting between the two organizations to discuss the original letter, which was again declined by The Ecology School. On Feb. 15 The Ecology School informed the association that it had hired an attorney to address the situation. In June 2013, both organizations signed an arbitration agreement that stipulated that both organizations would abide by whatever resolution a judge decided. On July 29, an arbitration judge decided the school would pay $8,750 per week for fair market rent. The Ecology School filed a statement with the judge asking for a reconsideration, which was met with a reaffirmation from the judge regarding the rate, which was then accepted by The Ecology School.

The Ecology School is scheduled to break ground on River Bend Farm this fall, and Dumsch has said in prior interviews that he hopes a new location, owned by the school, would be a great opportunity. The Ecology School did not return a request for comment on the issue, and Stackpole said a request for comment would be forwarded to the Ferry Beach Park Association’s lawyer, which also was not returned.

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