SACO — When Drew Dumsch stepped onto River Bend Farm, he knew instantly it was the perfect new home for The Ecology School.

Nestled along the Saco River in a rural corner of Saco, the 105-acre farm has a mix of farmland, forest and ponds, plus a half-mile of river frontage. It includes a farmhouse built in 1794 and a barn from the 1840s.

“It’s just fantastic,” said Dumsch, who founded the nonprofit ecology school at Ferry Beach in 1998 and now serves as its executive director. “It will become an amazing educational center that will really celebrate the history of Saco, agriculture and ecology.”

The 17-year-old school is best known throughout the region for offering weeklong residential camps next to Saco Bay for middle school and upper elementary students in the Saco area and beyond. It also has programs for adults. The school has served 145,000 children and adults over the past 17 years and averages about 12,000 program participants a year.

Now, the ecology- and sustainability-based school is in need of a new home and getting close to final city approval that would allow the riverside property – which is under a conservation easement and in a conservation zoning district – to be used for education. However, plans to build two dormitories and a dining hall have raised questions about the appropriate use of land and whether the school is a good fit for a quiet, rural neighborhood.

Executive Director Drew Dumsch says a move to River Bend Farm would allow The Ecology School to improve its residential immersion, hands-on ecology and agricultural programs. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Executive Director Drew Dumsch says a move to River Bend Farm would allow The Ecology School to improve its residential immersion, hands-on ecology and agricultural programs. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The Saco Planning Board and city staff have recommended the City Council approve a contract zone on the property, which is in a Conservation District where schools are not currently an allowed use. The council held a public hearing on the request Jan. 4 and is expected to vote Jan. 19. The school would still be required to seek Planning Board approval for new buildings on the farm.

ADDING PROGRAMS AND BUILDINGS

The Ecology School is under contract to purchase the farm, which was listed for sale for $1.3 million.

Dumsch said The Ecology School staff has been looking for a new campus because of the limitations it is under at Ferry Beach, where the school rents space from the Ferry Beach Association. That arrangement leaves the school with space to operate for 12 weeks in the spring and 10 weeks in the fall, he said.

“We’re at the point where we’re somewhat limited,” Dumsch said. “We can’t do weekend and summer programs to the level we’d like.”

A move from the beach to the farm would allow The Ecology School to teach about the link between human and natural systems through residential immersion programs, hands-on ecology and agricultural activities, Dumsch said. The school plans to use the existing buildings for farming, educational purposes, office and meeting space, and housing. Dumsch is working with green architects to design low-impact, energy-efficient buildings for the school campus. The two dormitory buildings could be up to 9,000 square feet each and the dining hall around 7,000 square feet.

EASEMENT STRICTLY LIMITS USES

River Bend Farm was placed under a conservation easement with the Saco Valley Land Trust by Mary Merrill in 1998 to protect the natural, scenic farmland and the rural and agricultural characteristics of the property, according to her family. When she died in 2005, the farm was left to her nephew, Tom Merrill, who supports The Ecology School’s plans. In a letter to the Planning Board, Tom Merrill said the project expands on his aunt’s hopes and visions for the land and supports education, another issue to which she was committed.

“The Ecology School is the best plan we can imagine for ensuring that the property will continue to be shared as a real, and important, community resource in the truest sense of the term,” he wrote. “Encouraging young people to get out of the classroom, to be outside and experience the importance of preserving open space and our state’s agricultural tradition, would be fitting to my aunt’s vision.”

Under the terms of the conservation easement, there are strict limits on what can be built on the 96-acre portion of the farm that is protected. The easement also outlines the type of buildings permitted on the nearly 9-acre residence area of the property. The existing farmhouse and barn cannot be expanded, and additional structures are only allowed if they are permitted by local land-use laws and are in keeping architecturally with the existing buildings. The easement also prohibits any commercial use other than activities connected to farming.

The land trust must grant approval for the sale and must sign off on the architectural compatibility of any buildings built on the residence area of the farm, land trust attorney Brenda Buchanan wrote in a Dec. 4 letter that is included in a city file on the contract zone application.

LAND TRUST RELUCTANT TO SELL

Richard Rhames, board chairman for the land trust, said the board has grappled with the school’s plans since last June and had to involve the trust’s attorney after Merrill threatened to sue if it blocked the sale.

“We have had a very hard time getting our mind around this proposed institutional use on a piece of farmland that was accepted as an agricultural easement,” Rhames said.

Rhames said the trust believes the proposed use of the property is not in accordance with the easement, but has agreed to sign off on the sale because it can’t afford a legal battle. Also, Buchanan obtained information from the state Attorney General’s Office that showed recent court decisions have concluded that 501(c)(3) nonprofits are not commercial entities. Instead of trying to enforce the easement and stop the sale, the land trust will now focus on ensuring that new buildings meet the terms of the easement and are in keeping with the other buildings at the farm, he said.

“This has taken a tremendous emotional toll on the board,” Rhames said. “This has been the biggest fight we’ve been in.”

The school’s plan also has upset some residents along Simpson Road, a quiet neighborhood where neighbors rallied together in recent years to save the historic Stackpole Bridge. In letters to city officials and at public meetings, neighbors outlined concerns about whether the school is the right fit for a tract of conserved farmland, the number of students and staff using the property, and the effects of things such as bus traffic and lights on the property.

Inga Browne, a Simpson Road resident, says she supports The Ecology School and its mission, but thinks the plans for a school campus are a mismatch for a property with a conservation easement. Even after meeting with Dumsch and attending public meetings, Browne said she doesn’t have firm answers about plans for new buildings, how many people will be on the campus and what would happen if the school ever closed.

“I think the Planning Board and the city have not asked enough questions or the right questions. As neighbors, we’re feeling somewhat uncertain,” she said. “We’re talking about an irrevocable change to a 105-acre farm that has a very unique and carefully worded conservation easement on it. We’re talking about a change forever.”

The 105-acre River Bend Farm in Saco, where The Ecology School hopes to have a new campus, includes a mix of farmland, forest and ponds, a farmhouse built in 1794 and a barn from the 1840s.

The 105-acre River Bend Farm in Saco, where The Ecology School hopes to have a new campus, includes a mix of farmland, forest and ponds, a farmhouse built in 1794 and a barn from the 1840s. Photos by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Dumsch said he is eager to continue the existing conservation and farming uses at River Bend, which is not currently being farmed. He has spent months meeting with city officials, neighbors and land trust members to talk about his plans for the school and address concerns about the impact on the land and neighborhood. He said he is confident the school is a good fit for the farm.

Dumsch said he is also hopeful that The Ecology School can develop positive relationships with those groups, and he would like to partner with the land trust and the University of New England to study the land. The Ecology School has committed $52,000 toward programs to Saco schools.

ANY CHANGES, MOVE YEARS AWAY

Even if the City Council approves the contract zone and the sale is finalized, the school’s move to the farm won’t be immediate. The school has a lease with the Ferry Beach Association through 2018, but would likely start to use the River Bend property for farming and some field trips as soon as this year, Dumsch said. The school would move to the farm campus by 2019.

The Ecology School is still in the planning phase for both the new buildings and the capital campaign that would be launched to pay for them. Dumsch estimates the school will make “a sizable” investment of $5 million to $7 million in the buildings, which he says will be part of the education because of their green components. He said the school has already received several five-figure donations for the project and he will continue to look for grants and partnerships to help fund it.

“This is something big and bold,” Dumsch said. “It feels a little bit daunting or like a big challenge, but we have folks out there who are rooting for us and really believe in this project.”