PORTLAND — The Planning Board is expected to review and vote today on the University of New England’s plans to build the first dental school in northern New England.

Plans call for a 39,000-square-foot Patient Care Center at 1 College St., which would serve 138 students and about 12,000 patients annually.

If approved, the $14 million center would be open by fall of 2013, fulfilling two needs: training future dentists and providing much-needed dental care in Portland.

“There’s such a high demand for dentists, regionally and nationally,” said Alan Thibeault, UNE’s director of campus planning. “It’s almost an epidemic.”

The Patient Care Center, which would provide dental care to the public, is expected to be at capacity in three to four years, Thibeault said.

Last year, UNE received $3.5 million of a $5 million bond approved by state voters in 2010 to improve access to dental services in Maine.

Maine has fewer dentists per capita than the national average, according to a 2011 study by the University of New York at Albany.

Nationally in 2007, there were six active dentists per 10,000 people, but Maine had only five. Maine had even fewer primary care dentists (4.1) per 10,000 people than its neighbors: Massachusetts (7.1), New Hampshire (5.8) and Vermont (5.5), the study said.

The proposed dental school is already generating interest, even though the plans haven’t been approved, according to James Koelbl, UNE’s dean of dental medicine. He said UNE has accepted more than 400 applications over the past two weeks.

“That’s pretty typical,” said Koelbl, noting nationally there are about 12,000 applications for every 5,000 first-year dental school openings.

The closest dental schools are located in Massachusetts at Harvard University, Boston University and Tufts University, said Koelbl, and those schools focus more on research and graduate education.

“We’re going to be geared more toward (primary dental care) in rural communities,” Koelbl said. “I don’t think the schools in Boston see us as competition, and we don’t see them as competition, because we have different goals and objectives.”

The University of New York at Albany study found that UNE’s dental school could increase the number of dental providers in underserved areas such as Oxford, Somerset and Waldo counties, which have the smallest ratio of dentists per 10,000 people at 2.25, 2.49 and 2.58, respectively.

One way UNE will try to do this is through a community-based education model that will place students in rural clinics during their fourth and final year of school, Koelbl said.

“(Community-based models) really increase the chance (students) are going to bond with the community and stay in the community and practice after they graduate,” he said. “That’s really going to be our focus: to recruit young men and women who have an interest in practicing dentistry in rural areas.”

The school will be located in a two-story building facing Stevens Avenue that will contain about $3 million worth of state-of-the-art dental equipment. Students in their first year will train on robotic patients with removable and drillable teeth, before working under supervision on live patients in their second and third years.

The fourth year of education will also help students learn about the business aspects of running a private practice.

Most of Maine’s dentists are from out of state, according to the study, and Koelbl said that most of these prefer to set up near Maine cities, rather than rural areas. UNE hopes to focus its recruitment on Maine students, whom they hope will want to practice in rural areas.

“It’s not a guarantee, though,” Koelbl said. “People have free choice and go different places for different reasons.”

UNE tried to buy several parcels of city-owned land in the Bayside neigborhood last year for the school, but was passed over in favor of Federated Properties, a for-profit real estate company. At the time, city councilors expressed interest in a business that would pay property taxes, rather than a tax-exempt nonprofit.

Thibeault said UNE then decided to build the school on its 41-acre Stevens Avenue campus, where its College of Pharmacy and the Westbrook College of Health Professions are located.

In 2011-12, more than 7,300 people were enrolled full time, part time and in online classes at UNE.

At three community meetings on the proposal, parking and traffic emerged as key issues. The project is expected to result in 69 new vehicle trips on Stevens Avenue at the peak hour — just after noon. A total of 124 new parking spaces would be needed.

In March, UNE bought about 19 acres of land on Bishop Street, which will be used as a satellite parking lot, with shuttle bus service from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: [email protected]mainetoday.com