The Saco City Council on Monday approved a contract zone that will allow The Ecology School to build a campus on a farm in a rural corner of the city.

The Ecology School plans to turn River Bend Farm, most of which is under a conservation easement, into a campus for its sustainability-based curriculum. A City Council-approved contract zone was needed because a school is not an allowed use in that part of the city.

The City Council voted 5-2 in favor of the contract zone, which puts restrictions on the size of buildings the school will be allowed to build. Councilors Nathan Johnston and Roger Gay opposed the contract zone.

The Ecology School is under contract to buy River Bend Farm on Simpson Road, which is listed for sale for $1.3 million. The school, established in 1998 at Ferry Beach, offers weeklong residential camps for middle school and upper elementary students. School officials say a move from the beach to the farm will allow the school to expand its educational programming and offer students a unique opportunity to stay on a working farm.

But some neighbors to the farm and the land trust that oversees a conservation easement on most of the farm have resisted the plan. The majority of the 105-acre farm is under a conservation easement held by the Saco Valley Land Trust that prohibits new buildings. New buildings would be allowed on the part of the farm where the original farmhouse stands.

Drew Dumsch, executive director of The Ecology School, said he was pleased with the council vote and that councilors seemed to listen closely to the concerns of neighbors and the land trust as they made their decisions.

“This is the first step and there is a lot of work ahead of us, but we’re looking forward to rolling up our sleeves and moving ahead with the project,” he said.

Dumsch said the “green” school campus would include two dormitory buildings and a dining hall. Under the terms of the contract zone, the school can build two dorm buildings, each with up to 9,000 square feet of floor space on a footprint up to 4,500 square feet. The dining hall can be up to 7,000 square feet. The campus will be able to accommodate up to 120 weekly program participants and 10 seasonal staff members.

The buildings will need to go through the Planning Board for approval.

The City Council had been scheduled to vote on the contract zone on Jan. 19, but tabled the vote to seek clarification from the Planning Board about the size of the buildings that would be allowed on the property.

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 experience 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.

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. The school would move to the farm campus by 2019.


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