With the Harpswell Coastal Academy campus set to go up for auction on Wednesday, May 10, more than 100 local residents have signed a letter outlining their concerns about the potential impact of the site being transferred to new ownership. The group hopes to have a say in what happens to the property.
The residents, led by local business owner Kara Douglas, delivered the letter on Friday, May 5, to the Town Office, the academy and its board of directors, and auctioneer Keenan Auction Co., of Portland. The letter focuses primarily on concerns about future groundwater usage at the site and whether it would stress the area’s aquifer.
“While we understand that HCA is liable for repayment of debts and is making every attempt to procure the funds necessary to finance staff salaries, we are worried that the pace with which the sale is taking place will ultimately compromise the character of the community and the natural resources on which it depends,” the letter reads in part. “This is especially concerning given that the original premise of the school’s educational mission was place-based and natural resource-minded.”
Douglas, who lives and works directly across from the campus, said the residents worry there aren’t sufficient rules in place to prevent inappropriate uses on the site. She said there is no clear sense of how much additional development local wells can support, and that the town should investigate before authorizing any redevelopment plans.
“Before additional development is approved, we feel strongly that the Town must hire a qualified hydrogeologist to assess the aquifer, including projections about how the installations of impervious surfaces will impact groundwater and the health of the adjacent floodplain forest,” the letter states.
Douglas, who owns and operates Fishmoon Yoga, said the residents who signed the letter aren’t looking for a fight and simply want their voices heard. The letter asks that the auction house relay the residents’ concerns to bidders, and that the winning bidder “remain open-minded and talk with the community about development plans.”
“I don’t feel like this is something we need to go to battle about,” Douglas said. “I’d rather figure out how we can work together to both preserve the character of the town and to make sure these essential resources are well stewarded.”
Cynthia Shelmerdine, chair of the HCA board, said that while she appreciated the letter’s thoughtful approach, she took issue with the residents’ suggestion that the sale process was happening too quickly and without sufficient community input.
“From the school’s perspective, the pace has not been rapid,” Shelmerdine said. “The town of Harpswell exercised its right of first refusal in late December, and that process took until the town meeting on March 11. We could not begin to take any other steps about the sale until then, just three months before the school was to close.”
Harpswell Coastal Academy, a public charter school for grades five through 12, is set to close at the end of the school year after a decade in operation. The Maine Charter School Commission did not renew its charter, citing a variety of concerns.
The town of Harpswell sold the property to the nonprofit Harpswell Coastal Academy Inc. for $150,000 in 2015. In recent months, the academy offered to sell the property back to the town.
Town officials balked at the potential sale price of $800,000, although Shelmerdine said that figure was merely a price cap based on preliminary estimates. Academy officials said the sale price would need to cover the school’s financial obligations, including debts and repayment of federal grants.
The Harpswell Select Board in March put the matter to voters, who overwhelmingly rejected the purchase.
On Monday, May 8, Select Board Chair Kevin Johnson said in an interview that the letter’s signers should have voiced their concerns about water usage at the town meeting in March. Still, Johnson said he doubts the property’s future owners would need to use as much water as the academy does, especially if the site is converted into a small subdivision of three or four homes, as some are expecting.
“They’re worried about the aquifer and the water,” he said, “but it’s going to be far less (usage) with four homes than it would be with 120 kids flushing toilets all day.”
Town resident Susan Lowery, who lives next to the academy’s campus, said she signed the letter because it may be the only remedy residents have left to forestall an inappropriate use on the site. Lowery said she would like to see the property serve a community purpose, such as a nursery school expansion site, adult day care center, library branch, event center or coworking space.
Still, she acknowledged that it might be too late for residents to influence what the buyer will do.
Lowery said the letter’s proposed solution of working collaboratively with the property’s buyer “seems perfectly doable, and it’s probably not going to happen, but it would be nice if it would in a world that’s gotten accustomed to fighting about things.”
Auctioneer Stefan “Stef” Keenan said his company planned to go over the letter with academy officials and abide by their wishes when it comes to making any special announcements or requests to prospective buyers about letting area residents have input in any redevelopment plans.
“We will discuss this with our client and make the representations our client wants us to make,” Keenan said.
Harpswell Town Administrator Kristi Eiane said it’s likely there will be opportunities for the town to have a say in the site’s redevelopment, either through a subdivision or site plan review. However, Eiane noted that it wouldn’t be fair to put special restrictions on the property that don’t apply elsewhere.
The town can’t dictate what private landowners do with their property as long as it meets planning and zoning requirements, she said.
“I feel like there was this public opportunity (to purchase the site), and there really was this overwhelming majority that said no at the town meeting,” Eiane said. “I think a lot of that had to do with the cost, but obviously if you don’t purchase it, you don’t have the same type of control.”