The entrance to Harpswell Coastal Academy in September. (J.W. OLIVER PHOTO)
The town of Harpswell will enter negotiations to buy back the Harpswell Coastal Academy campus as the charter school prepares to close after 10 years.
In a 3-0 vote on Thursday, Dec. 15, the Harpswell Board of Selectmen agreed to notify Harpswell Coastal Academy of the town’s interest in the property.
In November, Harpswell Coastal Academy had offered to sell the campus to the town. The offer was a condition of the property’s sale from the town to the nonprofit Harpswell Coastal Academy Inc. in 2015. The sale price was $150,000.
Harpswell Coastal Academy had leased the property since 2013 and the town credited $40,000 in lease payments toward the purchase. HCA put down $10,000 at closing and agreed to pay off the $100,000 balance with annual installments of $10,000. The school owes the town $30,000.
The property at 9 Ash Point Road encompasses 7.73 acres, according to town records. The school building dates to 1964 and, with a 1989 addition, totals 16,899 square feet.
The property has a town-assessed value of $1,022,200 — $928,200 for the building and other improvements, plus $94,000 for the land. Before Harpswell Coastal Academy, it was home to West Harpswell School, a K-5 public elementary school that closed in 2011.
Harpswell Coastal Academy, a public charter school for grades five through 12, will close at the end of the school year after the Maine Charter School Commission declined to renew its charter in October. The commission cited concerns about chronic absenteeism, academic performance, school finances, and the condition and size of the building.
Cynthia Shelmerdine, chair of the Harpswell Coastal Academy Board of Directors, offered to sell the property back to the town in a Nov. 10 letter to Town Clerk Catherine Doughty.
The 2015 agreement between the nonprofit and the town gave the town 45 days from receipt to accept the offer. The town received the letter on Nov. 14, so the deadline would have fallen on Dec. 29.
Once Harpswell Coastal Academy receives notice of the town’s decision, the sides will have 45 days to negotiate a price. If they reach a deal, the purchase will need approval from Harpswell voters. If negotiations fail, Harpswell Coastal Academy can sell the property to any buyer.
On Dec. 15, Town Administrator Kristi Eiane told the select board there had been “no discussion” with the school about the price.
Eiane said that she and Selectman Jane Covey had met with the Harpswell Coastal Academy Board of Directors the previous evening.
A few Harpswell Coastal Academy board members want to see another school in the space, Eiane said, and suggested that another school may have interest.
“They’re not the only ones,” Selectman Dave Chipman said. “Many people would like to see that.”
But the board decided to protect its right of first refusal and, after just a few minutes of discussion, voted to notify the school of its interest.
The select board had first reviewed the offer on Dec. 1. Eiane told the board that the town’s Recreation Committee and its Affordable Housing Working Group had discussed the matter.
“I do think we’re hearing that there is definitely interest in the town considering the repurchase,” Eiane said.
At the Affordable Housing Working Group’s meeting on Nov. 30, members expressed support for exploring the purchase amid doubts about the property’s suitability for a housing development.
Members brainstormed possibilities for the property, estimating that a developer could convert all or part of the building into anywhere from six to 29 apartments. They floated the idea of converting the original section of the building into housing and the addition, which includes a gymnasium, into a community center.
Potential obstacles include the capacity of the building’s septic system, the need to amend zoning to allow more than four units, possible opposition from the neighborhood, and the economic feasibility of a housing project — whether affordable rents could cover a multimillion-dollar investment. The existing septic system dates to the 1990s and would support 11-12 units, according to Town Planner Mark Eyerman.
Zachary Stoler, an associate member of the working group, suggested the possibility of converting the building into office space for rent. “There really is no office space available in the town anywhere,” he said.
But regardless of whether redevelopment will work or what it would look like, the working group agreed that the town should buy back the property. Even if the town ultimately demolishes the building, its ownership could prevent the structure’s abandonment, which could turn it into an eyesore and safety hazard, members said.
“I think we can all probably imagine this building could just sit there for 30 or 40 years, falling apart,” Stoler said.
Kevin Johnson, chair of both the Board of Selectmen and the Affordable Housing Working Group, said “it would be foolish not to take” the building back, but added that “it depends on what we can get it for.”
“I think this is a positive opportunity, seriously,” said Courtenay Snellings, a member of the working group. “We don’t really know exactly what can be done, but it seems like there are enough ideas as to why the town should acquire it that that sounds like a good thing to me — just explore acquiring it.”
The select board will meet again on Dec. 29, when it may discuss who will lead negotiations for the town.