Above: A view of the Saco River from the porch of the farmhouse at Riverbend Farm, as seen Jan. 8. Right: Ecology School Founder Drew Dumsch talks about the school’s proposed new site at Riverbend Farm at a barn on the Simpson Road property.

Above: A view of the Saco River from the porch of the farmhouse at Riverbend Farm, as seen Jan. 8. Right: Ecology School Founder Drew Dumsch talks about the school’s proposed new site at Riverbend Farm at a barn on the Simpson Road property.

SACO — The view from the expansive porch of the 1794 farmhouse at Riverbend Farm is pretty magnificent.

There are gardens and trees, and rolling pastures that lead to the shores of the Saco River.

“You get the feeling that you’re in the middle of nowhere,” said Drew Dumsch, founder of The Ecology School.

 

 

Dumsch is under contract to purchase the former horse farm at 184 Simpson Road. He plans to begin farming the land in 2017, and move all operations to the property by 2019.

The school has asked the city for a contract zone to allow it to operate at the Simpson Road location, as local zoning doesn’t permit schools there. The City Council will vote whether to approve the contract zone on Tuesday.

The 105-acre Riverbend Farm was put in an easement in 1998 with Saco Valley Land Trust by former owner Mary Merrill, who died in 2005 and left the property to her nephew, Tom Merrill.

Under the terms of the easement, the land must be used for farming, recreation and research. Building is permitted only on nine acres of land where the farmhouse and barn are located. Commercial activity is prohibited unless it’s agricultural.

The Ecology School has operated since its inception in 1998 on space it leases from the Ferry Beach Park Association 22 weeks a year. The Simpson Road location would allow the school to expand the programming season.

It would also allow the school to expand its vegetable garden, which will be used as a teaching tool and as a source of food for the cafeteria, and to raise animals such as chickens. Practices such as composting and collecting rain water would be utilized.

With a variety of different ecosystems – including ponds, a river, forest and fields – as well as acres of farmland, the site is the perfect location for the school, which uses nature as its classroom to provide engaging outdoor lessons, said Dumsch.

“You can tell a kid something, but if you show them and it’s an experience that’s enjoyable, it will mean so much more,” he said.

The school would build two 9,000-square-foot, threestory dormitories and a 7,000-square-foot dining hall and kitchen.

The buildings will be “super green” and energy efficient, and will be set back from the road, said Dumsch.

“The Ecology School is the best plan we could 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,” Tom Merrill wrote in a letter to the Planning Board. “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 a fitting tribute to my aunt’s vision.”

Not everyone shares that view.

Richard Rhames, chairman of Saco Valley Land Trust, which oversees the trust for the property, said Saco should rely on its zoning laws rather than approve the contract zone that would grant the school permission to operate at Riverbend Farm.

Rhames said the proposed dormitories and dining hall are “out of scale” with the rest of the property and would go against the easement, which requires that the current buildings not have any increases in footprint or additions, and that any new buildings have architecture that’s compatible to the farm house and barn.

Rhames said Merrill signed the easement to the land trust but kept the property so the trust could be “the bad cop” and make sure the land was being used according to her wishes.

“We didn’t put the restrictions there, Mary did,” said Rhames. “It’s not about our personal preferences,” but rather, what’s in the easement.

Rhames said there was a difference between agriculture, which was allowed in the easement, and gardening, which was the intention of the school.

Rhames said the school should buy a different property and design an easement to meet its needs.

Should the City Council approve the contract zone, The Ecology School proposal would still have to go before the Planning Board.

“It’s got a ways to go yet,” said Mayor Ron Michaud.

Michaud hopes that if the proposal goes through the Planning Board and the site plan review process, the school and the land trust can work together and find a solution acceptable to both.

“Many times in life, there’s a middle ground,” said Michaud.

In a memo to city officials, City Attorney Tim Murphy said he could see how two sides could view the situation differently.

“It strikes me the proposed use is sympathetic to the issues usually advanced by conservation easements, and that the requesting entity is generally well regarded and well intentioned,” said Murphy. “I can also see how some purists might worry that the proposed use will exceed traditional practices on protected land.”

Murphy suggested that the best solution would be for the two entities to work together to develop an agreeable allowed use.

— Staff Writer Liz Gotthelf can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 325 or [email protected]


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